'Street Priest' Reads The Faces: 'Somebody Love Me'

May 07, 1991|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

Morning after morning, people find their way to the Rev. Peter Caputo's spot at the counter in Chick and Ruth's deli in Annapolis, looking for money, information and affection.

They never go wanting.

"You learn to read faces. Everybody you see is saying, 'Somebody please say something nice to me. Somebody please love me.' And Jesus Christ does," says Caputo. "All you have to do is accept that love."

Caputo doesn't look much like an Anglican priest. In spite of the clerical collar, he looks more like the police chief he once was.

He often doesn't sound like a priest either, bellowing show tunes andtrading witticisms with customers. But people come, drawn to this oasis of joy in the middle of the morning rush.

On a recent morning,Caputo hands out $22 just walking from his car to the deli. One burly man squeezes the priest's shoulder and asks for money for breakfast.

"As soon as I get my circulation back, I'll get in my pocket," he responds, chuckling, and pulls out a couple of the 'foldies' he carries, dollar bills folded up and ready for distribution.

At the deli, a well-groomed man smoothing a silk tie stops to chat about his marital problems. By the time Caputo has finished his oatmeal, seven others have stopped, seeking all sorts of help, wanting to talk.

The 57-year-old priest mostly just listens. "I don't give advice. Just an ear, that's what I am," he says. "People are so busy nowadays, they don't hear each other. A lot of people feel better if they can get it out of their system. Just get it out."

This approach works at Caputo's parish, St. Charles Anglican in Crownsville, which has grown from 15 members when he arrived four years ago to more than 150.

"We keep it very simple. We preach the Gospel and care for people's needs, and that's it," says Caputo, a tanned, engaging man with warm eyes and a quick laugh.

The priest seems equally effective as he strolls the brick streets of Annapolis on his morning "rounds." As an unofficial "street priest" in the town, Caputo generally walks down to the harbor, poking his head in shops as they open, chatting with townspeople and tourists.

He passes a station wagon with a bumper-sticker reading, "Move over yourself."

"Now there's a guy who could use some ministry," Caputo says, not quite in jest.

He admires crossnecklaces in a jewelry store window. "Beautiful. I hope they mean something to the person who buys them."

Just then, a spritely gentleman crossing the streets sees Caputo and bursts into loud song. "How great thou art. . . ." he intones a hymn. And then teases, "Not you, father."

At McGarvey's Saloon, Caputo hugs bartender Larry Armstrong. "Larry! God bless you! How you doin'? The greatest bartender in the world!'

Armstrong tells the priest a picture of the two has made it into Bartender magazine.

Caputo hoots joyfully. "I've become famous! My mother will kill me. She thinks I'm a priest!"

"You have a mother?" ribs another friend.

Back on the street, Caputo practices reading faces.

"That couple we just passed," he says. "He looks unpleasant, and she looks as if she knows he's hard to put up with, but she loves him anyway.

"If he would just turn around on the street and tell her he loves her, so much of her pain would just flow away."

Politicians, housewives, yuppies, businesspeople, bums -- to Caputo they are essentially the same.

"Every person has this thirst for God. It manifests itself in different ways, this need to knowGod and our Lord Jesus Christ. But it's there. You just ask how theyare, and this stream of information comes pouring out. They're tired. They're busy. They're worried. They're depressed. Sometimes it's years of hurt."

And sometimes, "By the grace of God, they tell it tome and I give it to the Lord, and maybe they are helped."

Caputo remembers the moment he became officially ordained to helping people.

Flat on his face before a bishop eight years ago, in the middle ofthe ordination service, he realized suddenly that he was about to become a priest.

"God's really got a sense of humor," thought this former vice squad officer with a rough past to his name.

"I always felt this call for ministry and kept avoiding it. I'd lived such a bad life, I didn't think I was worthy. But as C. S. Lewis wrote, 'Once Christianity gets ahold of you, it never lets you go.' "

In 1976 he was ordained as a deacon; he then read for holy orders. Now, after nearly a decade as a priest, Caputo still hasn't gotten used to beingcalled "Father."

But he relishes the part he has in the families of his parishioners -- a sort of uncle, observing all the significantmoments of people's lives.

Sometimes the job is tough, absorbing the problems of so many people. Sometimes it's lonely, Caputo, who issingle, says. "Sometimes people cuss me out. They'll say, 'You damned priest.' I just say, 'Thank you, and God bless you.' "

But at the deli, Caputo is always welcomed. On his first visit to Annapolis in1985, he walked in and sat down in the seat that would become his spot.

"Hi, Father, you hungry?" inquired proprietor Chick Levitt. "Have something on me."

"I got all choked up. I'd never met him before," recalls Caputo.

Now the priest's picture hangs in the back room along with celebrities who've visited the deli, and he and Levitt can't say enough about one another.

"Just his presence is nice," says Levitt. "He's a nice, nice person. I wish he was the rabbi! He does so many things that help people. It's a lot of work you don't get paid for."

But every day as Caputo crosses the streets, he is rewarded by the faces of people he greets. A teen-ager in a convertible honks and waves. An elderly man stops to embrace him. A mother welcomes Caputo as if God had given her a present.

"What delights me is just to tell people the love of Christ is there," says the priest. "The world is redeemed by his presence."

In Annapolis, on a sunny spring morning, the same could be said of Father Caputo.

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