By Damian Torres-Botello, SJ
"I am Phil the Prophet." He had a deep bass voice accented with a scratchiness from an incessant cough. “I come here every night and no one is ever here, not ever. Please leave.”
This was how I met Phil the Prophet in the fall of 2001 on a park bench in Kansas City, Missouri. Phil the Prophet was a homeless man. From him I learned about the “sacred territories of the destitute,” as he put it. Safe places free from disruption and danger that he and others claim as their own.
From our interactions and subsequent friendship, I became impassioned about the homeless. And when it came time to write about their experiences, it would be the voice and spirit of Phil the Prophet I drew from.
In 2004, I co-founded Full Circle Theatre Company, an organization dedicated to presenting social issues through performance. Our first foray came in the form of a play, Whispers from the Streets. Drawing on interviews with hundreds of men and women experiencing homelessness, we wrote a series of monologues using their words and their stories. Our aim was to put names to faces that are often overlooked or avoided.
The cast of Whispers from the Streets (from left) Damian Torres-Botello, SJ, Haley Warren, and Collen Kilcoyne.
In these past five years of my Jesuit formation, I have come to recognize creating safe and brave spaces as integral to my vocation — whether it is as a spiritual director on a retreat, accompanying male prostitutes on the streets of Chicago, through dialogue with LGBT+ persons about their faith, or wherever I find myself surrounded by people. Designing intentional spaces was inspired by my experiences as a theatre artist. These spaces are essential to building communities, moving us from strangers to neighbors. We have a chance to listen to stories and experiences, thoughts, ideas, perspectives, and beliefs. And when all these things are in concert with each other, we have authenticity. We have the Kingdom.
Phil the Prophet makes an appearance in Whispers from Streets. As he did in real life, the Prophet sings spirituals in the play, interjecting words of revelation: By the year 2020 ... the whole of the world will be homeless; look’n for a piece of meat to eat, water to drink, shelter from the rain. It’ll be then, in that time, you’ll ask for help from the likes of me. We appreciate what we got and what we don‘t. We can survive.
Phil the Prophet believed he had value and something to offer, that he was worth paying attention to. That is true for all of us. My work as a Jesuit and theatre artist invites opportunities for people to hear one another to discover our differences, our likenesses, and our humanity. At least that is my hope and my prayer.