By Lizzie Self, University of Notre Dame
If you live in Memphis and have engaged in any form of community service, odds are you have met Billy. Whether you have fed the homeless, helped at Saint Jude’s, or taken donations into a resource center, it is fairly likely you have seen his black truck and his hat-framed, salt-and-peppered face. Wherever he goes, a legacy of service follows: a lifetime of faith in action.
Billy is a Memphian through and through, having grown up with blues in his blood, the Bible in his hand, and the Presleys down the street. In high school, he would stroll over to hear Elvis, who was a few years older than him, playing on his porch; he was always there, receiving visitors with the greatest politeness. “Maybe he’ll make it big someday,” Billy said as he listened at the gate. After high school, Billy attended Arkansas State for two years until his college funds ran out and he decided that peanut butter and crackers was not the way to live––a realization many a college kid have accepted resignedly. From there, Billy left and started working, first at a factory for thirteen years, then driving trucks. It is hard to pinpoint when exactly Billy made service his main workload, when he made the move from an 18-wheeler to the iconic Missionaries of Charity van, because he bowed to it one “yes” at a time.
Billy and the Sisters’ trusty steed
Decades ago, when the Missionaries of Charity first came to Memphis, it was curiosity that drew Billy to them. He heard about the Sisters within half an hour of their arrival, a friend took him over to them, and the rest is history. They put him to work immediately, and he spent the day helping them clean up the house. And then he returned the next day. And the next. “That was a lot of fun, and the Sisters used to work a lot with you. Now it seems like they eat alot… and that throws you off. You can’t work if you’re eating,” he said teasingly. “It was almost five years before the shelter came to be, I didn’t know it was a shelter, and I never asked what they were doing there. I just worked. It’s a lot of fun,” he repeated.
I asked Billy how his relationship with the Missionaries of Charity impacted him spiritually, and being a true native of the Bible Belt, he offered a reflection on the role of Scripture in his life. “If you just read it and don’t do anything, the Word is kind of dead. I kinda just got started with them [the Sisters] because of a rumor and asking, ‘What do you need?’ All they had was green beans and bread.”
The Sisters had few volunteers when they were first getting settled, so Billy was crucial to them, always taking on projects around their property and running errands. There was no service he refused. “Going to see the Sisters is like visiting my sisters!” he said to me. Thus, it seems that Billy found an unlikely family in the ever-evolving shelter the Sisters established. About the work, he said, “I didn’t think about what I’d do, because they always had something to do for me.” Stressing about the future is far from his mind – farther, at least, than the church where the Sisters are waiting for a ride or the store that has gathered donations for the shelter.
Naturally, I asked Billy if he had ever met Mother Teresa, and sure enough he had when she returned to Memphis to see how everything was going. He did not mean to meet her or plan to talk to her, but was elbowed into a line of introductions by some other volunteers. When he got to the front and took her hand, he simply said, “You’re all the same!” He realized immediately that this could be misunderstood, though he had in mind the shared mission, outward appearance, and spirit of the Sisters. However, he did not need to worry. Mother Teresa understood perfectly, and with a huge smile, gushed, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Of this interaction, Billy said, “I saw in her eyes the dark night of the soul, but I also saw she understood.” I cannot grasp how Billy is so aware of suffering, so capable of getting to the heart, so enabled for openness with complete strangers; he has made a life out of sharing in suffering.
The chapel in the convent, where the Sisters, volunteers, and the shelter women gather daily
Besides the Missionaries of Charity, Billy is a most loyal devotee to the children of Saint Jude’s Hospital. The original Saint Jude’s, notorious and ever-expanding, is one of the pride-and-joys of Memphians. Billy has been a frequent volunteer for many years, well-loved by many children and families there. No doubt he has been a great comfort to them. Over time, he was entrusted with watching over children as they rested, taking them for exercise around the hospital, keeping them entertained, changing diapers and feeding around the clock, and helping fulfill their last wishes. “I asked God to give me the ability to remember their names,” he said. “It meant everything to those kids. I don’t remember all of them now, but I learned something from all of them.”
Billy is more than eager to share the wisdom imparted to him by these little ones. “They were teaching me that life was more important than themselves… If you lose an arm, it’s better than losing your life.” Billy was with many kids as they died. Some were scared. Watching their suffering, he learned that strength has nothing to do with suffering but everything to do with your resolve. “How can you stand it? If they can, I can.” He would talk to them about the faith and ask if they wanted to be Catholic. “If you don’t that’s fine, we’ll still be friends,” he would offer. To me, Billy emphasized, “It’s better to show the Lord. God’s a God of everybody.” It was a regular occurence that families and children of all faiths would see him praying in the hospital, often a rosary, and would ask to join.
Some time ago, Billy was told that there was a famous artist coming to see Saint Jude’s, and he would need to accompany him and his wife on their tour, because the tour guide spoke only Spanish. Billy met this man and his wife, and together they laughed over the star’s Spanglish and marveled at Saint Jude’s services and inhabitants. In the elevator afterward, Billy acknowledged the star’s desperate need for a translator, and gave him his own, a cheap device from Radio Shack, which was gratefully received. In fact, the artist’s tearful gratitude astounded Billy. He asked the star why he was crying, and his wife said, “He doesn’t ever receive gifts; people are always asking for things from him.” Billy parted ways with Mr. and Mrs. Billy Rae Cyrus at their tour bus. The Cyruses promised to return to the hospital with toys for the children every year. This never came to be. “I felt sorry for him. He gave me his word. I told the kids he’d bring music and toys. I looked forward to it. It was like Christmas for me as much as them.”
Many times, various people have suggested to Billy that he actually find work in the hospital. Such encouragement came from his dear friend, James Mitchell, a famous musician from STAX records, who worked at Saint Jude’s. A street downtown bears Mitchell’s name, but Billy didn’t like him because he was famous. “Sometimes your spirit goes out and hits someone and you click. God puts you with compatible spirits to get over the humps of life. He could tell what I was thinking and I could tell what he was thinking.” Mitchell also volunteered with the Missionaries of Charity, and he was a spiritual companion to Billy. “I’d be reading the Bible and the words would get really lively, and I’d say, ‘Wow this is what we did for the day.’” Billy recognizes this grace with awe and humility, but he does not fixate on it for long; he is always ready for the work to be done next.
I asked Billy why he kept going back to St Jude’s, where all was hurt and he received no real pay. He said he still keeps learning from their holiness and witness to God. “They’re more than family. They’re all saints. They’re all close to God. You can look in their eyes and see what they’re going through. They won’t be canonized, but they’re saints.”
I particularly enjoyed Billy’s story of friendship with one such saint. There was a boy with a massive facial tumor whom Billy came to know: a high school-aged sports fanatic. Billy would take him to games, movies, and shopping, and everywhere they went, people would be scared of the formation on the boy’s face and gawk noticeably at the feeling teenager. Billy claimed they were only scared because they wouldn’t look him in the eyes. Billy thinks that understanding requires only honest effort and openness. “We became the best of friends,” Billy said of the kid, and the boy wrote a thank-you letter to him during his time at Saint Jude’s. The boy confided that he used to be quite the ladies’ man, but when he lost his looks to the tumor, he became God’s man. He learned that he is more beautiful on the inside and considered this a conversion in his life. This simple man, by his easy companionship, has supported countless youth on their journey through this life to God.
The work with the Sisters, stars, and children is all the same to Billy. “The Sisters and kids in the hospital have the same smile.” The joy is the same. The faith is the same. I am beyond grateful for the work he has done, the example he is to all of us, and his friendship.
Edited by Bea Cuasay