He stands on the street corner dressed in a black suit with a clerical collar. In his hands is a handwritten cardboard sign reading “Help Me Feed Starving Families.”
Creative panhandler? Another Pensacola nut job? Or priestly Good Samaritan?
Depending on your perspective, he may well be any or all of those things, but don’t judge him too quickly. His name is Nathan Monk. And he feeds the poor.
A SIGN OF SOLIDARITY
Father Monk was inspired to start holding cardboard signs on street corners about three years ago after he encountered a homeless man and his family on the corner of Brent and Palafox.
“He was holding a sign that said, ‘Hungry, Please Help,’” recalled Monk.
Monk offered to buy his family some food at a nearby Burger King. The man accepted and sent his wife and daughters to retrieve the food. Monk then asked why the man did not go with them.
“He said ‘I can’t do that,’” said Monk. “The man said, ‘We’re living in a hotel right now, and it costs $50 a day. If I don’t come up with $50…we’re going to be sleeping on the streets.’”
Monk then offered to hold the man’s sign for him so he could enjoy a meal with his family.
“He kind of looked at me like I was an idiot, but he gave me his sign,” said Monk.
He found the experience transformative.
“I’d been doing work with the poor, but I’d not really stood in their place. It really opened my eyes to what those guys go through.”
Monk resolved to continue holding signs on street corners as a demonstration of solidarity. “I’ve seen so much positive out of it. We’ve had lots of people bring us food…and I’ve had so many (members of the homeless community) tell me that it’s an encouragement to them to see me stand out there.”
FEEDING THE MASSES
On a warm Thursday afternoon, Father Monk stood behind a white plastic table under an I-110 overpass on Lee Street, as he does every Thursday at 5 p.m. About 80 men and women stood in line on his left, some smoking cigarettes, some corralling children, others waiting in silence. All are welcome, no questions asked.
One by one, they approached the table. Father Monk handed each a plate with a piece of Popeye’s chicken. They then proceeded down the line, receiving steamed vegetables, cake and a can of soda.
“God bless this meal,” one of them said.
As the last person was served, Monk removed his latex gloves and fixed himself a plate. Many of the diners approached him, offering gratitude in the form of handshakes, hugs and kind words.
Judged by his actions alone, Monk appears selfless and genuine. But there’s another side to the man—one that’s as mysterious as the other is charitable.
There has been some confusion over Monk’s priesthood and to which denomination he belongs. He wears the Roman collar and black suits that many in this area associate with the Roman Catholic Church, but he is not a Roman Catholic priest.
Monk was ordained in Nashville, Tenn. on Oct. 14, 2006 by Archbishop Wayne Booshada as a priest of the Old Catholic Church.
“The Old Catholic Church was originally a part of the Roman Catholic Church,” Archbishop Booshada told the IN in a telephone interview. “They were out of Utrecht, the Archdiocese of Utrecht in Holland. When the Vatican I Council was held, it officially affirmed that the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, had universal authority over the church and spoke infallibly on matters of faith and morals. The Archdiocese of Utrecht did not agree because they did not see that in the ancient church fathers and teachings.”
According to Booshada, the Archdiocese of Utrecht withdrew from the Roman Catholic Church but remained intact with their historic apostolic succession. He said that Roman Catholic communion recognizes all of their ordinations and sacraments as valid. That’s in many of the Roman Catholic documents.
“There are many branches of Catholic Christianity, and that’s one that withdrew from the Roman Communion but remained connected to the historic succession, sacraments and so forth,” said Booshada.
Monk admits there has been some confusion and that he kept in regular contact with recently retired Roman Catholic Bishop John Ricard. However, because of the confusion, Monk has applied to switch his church and his priesthood over to the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church.
St. Benedict Mission has become a provisional mission of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese.
“They are not yet accepted,” said Bishop Antoun Khouri, who is in charge of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian church in the Southeast. “They are in the process, but how long will it take? Who knows?”
Monk told the IN that he and the mission have completed all the necessary paperwork and are awaiting the final decision.
THE BATTLE OF FERDINAND PLAZA
Though his affiliations have been questioned, his commitment to his cause cannot. Monk has provided food for the less fortunate week in and week out for several years, despite facing numerous political obstacles.
Monk never intended to make feeding the homeless his cause. His involvement began by happenstance.
“I was sitting in (Ferdinand Plaza) one day…in my clericals…chatting with a couple of homeless guys,” recalled Monk. “This Arab guy, Abraham…gave me $20 and said ‘Go buy these guys some food.’ I got 20 hamburgers (from McDonald’s) and came back to the park, and I guess the guys had rallied up a bunch of their friends…there were exactly 20 guys waiting for me.”
“They asked me if I’d come back next week. I promised I would.”
The event became a weekly practice. “Within a month and a half, we had about 200 people in the park.”
Not everyone was happy about the mass meals in Ferdinand Plaza
“I sat down with (Assistant City Administrator Al Coby), and they told us they didn’t want us in the park anymore,” said Monk. “I asked him why, and we really got into it.”
Father Monk hadn’t anticipated such resistance.
“It didn’t even occur to me that I would ever have to engage in anything political, but I guess I was really just stupid and naïve,” he said.
Monk relocated to under the Lee Street overpass, where they’ve been held ever since. According to Monk, Coby told him that, “(The Lee Street location) would be a less offensive place, where people are more accustomed to people of this kind.”
Coby did not respond to the IN’s request for comment.
HUDDLED FOR WARMTH
In January 2010, Monk again made local headlines regarding his effort to provide cold shelters for the homeless.
“We had a 12-day period where it was below freezing every single night,” he said. “I started talking to different people around town about a plan so that those without homes or heat would have somewhere safe to go.”
There weren’t many who were willing to take in the city’s less fortunate, according to Monk. The Waterfront Mission and Salvation Army combined can only hold about 200 people. The Homeless Coalition’s low-end homeless population number for that year in Pensacola was around 1,200.
He took matters into his own hands. He and about 15 volunteers spent a night in tents and sleeping bags in front of the MLK Memorial on Palafox Street in protest.
“A lot of people stopped by to donate supplies, which we distributed to the poor throughout the week. Overall, we collected over 400 pounds of clothing, jackets and blankets.”
Unlike the fights over Ferdinand Plaza and the Palafox property, this was a battle that Monk won. “The next day, Brent Baptist, with the help of the American Red Cross, opened an emergency cold night shelter.”
Whether he is affiliated with the Old Catholic Church or the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, Father Nathan Monk feeds the poor by any means necessary, no matter how many political hurdles he has to overcome.
Escambia County has a homeless problem. A 2006 report estimates that there are 9,100 homeless people in Escambia County, including 3,185 homeless children. Monk has fed, clothed and helped provide shelter and comfort to many of them.
“A lot of the homeless problem comes down to the fact that people don’t feel loved,” said Monk. “If they genuinely felt loved, they wouldn’t do a lot of the things that they do.”
As for the criticisms he faces, Father Monk tries to ignore them.
“Christ really did not give a damn about what anybody thought. He both was found teaching in the synagogue…and eating with those people who society found to be the dredges.”