For a country boy from Utica, moving to New York City was a bit of a culture shock. Yet, that’s where Utica native Andrew Austin ended up when he joined the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a Roman Catholic Religious order with a house in the Manhattan borough of Harlem. Instead of the open fields and two lane, country roads he’s used to, Austin’s neighborhood now consists of row houses, busy streets, and the constant honks and sirens associated with big city life. Still, Andrew is completely content and very happy being exactly where God has planted him.
Andrew actually grew up in Owensboro but his family moved to Utica when he was going to Apollo, where he graduated in 2009. Ever since he was young, Austin says he was always raised around the farm. “My mom would drive me out and drop me off with my uncles so I could work on the farm all day in the fields. I loved it. It’s where I feel comfortable.”
Now he’s working in a very different field – serving the poor in the inner city. As a first-year “postulant” (which comes from the Latin word meaning “to ask”), Andrew has taken the first step to join the religious community, which is a ten month period to observe religious life, see how the community functions, and discern if the Lord is calling him to take the next step. If he continues, the “novitiate” is a further year of discernment, followed by four years of temporary vows and then final vows. “It’s very beautiful the way it’s set up. It allows plenty of time for discernment,” Austin commented. “Which is the way it should be, it’s a big commitment. But I’m excited to continue on and see if this is where God is ultimately calling me.”
Owensboro Living sat down with Andrew while he was home for Christmas to get the full story:
OL – How did you hear about the Franciscans Friars of the Renewal?
AA – It’s funny. I tell people my vocation revolves around Mexican food. I started discerning religious life and I felt called to a more active, apostolic life working with the poor. Then about two years ago, while I was in college at Western, I was home one weekend and my family went out to eat at El Toribio’s down by the river and in walked these two guys in grey habits. Seeing them created an interest in me. Praise be to God for Google because I searched “grey habits, long beards” and I found out who they were. I read about them and saw that they worked with the poor so I looked into it a little bit deeper. At first I wrote it off because they were in New York City, but I prayed about it more, set up a visit, and it just seemed right. So that’s where I am right now.
It’s such a blessing being in the city because there’s a lot of need and we’re able to try and fill that void by being present to the people. A lot of what we do is really very simple. We’re just present to the poor and the people we serve.
OL – What kind of work do you do?
AA – We have a soup kitchen we run out of our house on Thursdays and we do “door ministry” where people can come by and get a cup of coffee or a sandwich and we just hang out with them. These people are just like you and me. They just want to be loved and have a friend and someone to talk to. That’s why it’s such a blessing that I was nurtured in a great environment here in Kentucky, from a great family full of people who have always been present to me and taught me how to love others too. I definitely feel I’m able to love people where they’re at because of where I was brought up and because of all the blessings God has bestowed upon me through my family and friends.
And we go to other friaries and help out as well. There’s another homeless shelter in the Bronx that we volunteer at, a youth center in the Bronx, and another soup kitchen in Yonkers. We rotate and go to those once a week.
OL – Looking back on your first four months, what has been your greatest challenge?
AA – Living in the city is challenge for me because it’s not my nature. But it’s a good challenge. It’s a great opportunity. I feel a lot closer to God. Praying four hours a day is such a blessing. It says in the community’s constitution that we’ll have an hour of adoration, an hour of Mass, we’ll pray out of the breviary five times a day, and pray a rosary every day. Having that much time to be present to God and just “be still and know that God is God” is such a blessing.
OL – What has been the best thing about it so far?
AA – There’s so many… I will say that it’s been very encouraging to work with the poor and to see how appreciative they are and how they allow me to grow as well. They’re very honest and very open. I have a lot of room to grow in that area, so they can teach me a lot.
OL – What is the brotherhood like?
AA – I tell people I just gained 120 family members because that’s how many brothers there are total from postulancy to final vows. We’re divided into different houses. They say if you want to grow in your faith then surround yourself with good people. Well, I’m surrounded by so many good people there. People that encourage me. People that help me to be closer to God and to be a better man. I knew when I started to discern that I needed community. I knew it would either have to be marriage or religious life because I needed someone there to help me be my best. I knew diocesan priesthood was too isolated for me. I needed that support system… Living in community can be challenging, but you learn a lot about yourself. It’s a good struggle. It’s a great opportunity.
Not everyone is called to religious life, but He does call some to this way of life. What we do in religious life is live a radical life like Jesus did. We live simply because we believe Christ was poor. We live chastely because we believe Christ never married and lived celibate throughout his life. And we live obediently – as Christ lived obediently to the Father, we live obediently to our superior.
OL – Did you have any experiences growing up here in Owensboro that helped shape your calling to serve the poor?
AA – I’ve had a servant’s heart for a while. But it really took off in college, especially in working with Habitat. But this is a funny story – when I was 16 I got in trouble for muddin’ under a bridge in McLean County and I got 20 hours of community service, so I worked down at the Pitino Shelter. I thought it was awesome! I loved it. I served food to the homeless who came in. That may have been my first exposure to working with the poor. And now I do it every day.