By Briana Erickson
Las Vegas Review Journal
On Mondays, the Rev. John McShane steps out of his role as a Catholic priest and into another world.
The people of the Las Vegas streets flock to him like he’s the pope. They swarm him, arms outstretched. They touch his shoulders, his face, the shiny crown of his head.
“I feel like a football player, just ready to be tackled,” McShane, 76, said of the close encounters this week before venturing out for his weekly foray to provide food, clothing and comfort to the homeless. “But the people are really good to me.”
Aalaya Johnson, 13, dressed in a purple dinosaur jumpsuit, was waiting when he arrived and asked McShane if she could be his bodyguard. The two walked arm in arm into the crowded vacant lot off G Street and McWilliams Avenue where the giving would take place.
“The great treat for what we do is that there’s a togetherness,” said McShane, who also celebrates Mass on the streets on the first Monday of each month. “It’s not just the giving of things, but the sharing of selves.”
The weekly ritual, now in its 20th year, is casually known as Giving Back Monday among the dozens of organizations and independent volunteers that gather to pass out supplies to the needy.
But it started with McShane, when he and a handful of others began passing out cold water to the homeless waiting for shelter at Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada after two men died of heat exhaustion.
Named for patron saint of homeless
As it expanded, it became a weekly tradition that McShane dubbed the Saint Benedict Labre Homeless Ministry, borrowing the name of an 18th-century French worshipper who committed to a life of poverty, pilgrimage and prayer. The patron saint of the homeless, Labre spent more than a decade walking through continental Europe and living as a beggar until his death in 1783.
Now approximately 50 volunteers accompany McShane each week and help distribute supplies to hundreds of families and individuals. McShane spends about $200 from mostly team donations or his salary as a priest each week. Many of the volunteers similarly dig into their own pockets to the degree they are able.
We’re kind of like good Samaritans. We try to see people where they are and maybe provide a little help just to get them through the day,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be any divisiveness. A lot of the lines are broken down. There isn’t any type of discrimination. It seems like we’re all just one family.”
When he returns to his other world, McShane serves as a priest at St. Anne’s Catholic Church on Maryland Parkway and is on call to administer to the sick at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center.
That makes for a short commute to west Las Vegas for the gatherings. But for 13 years, when he was leading other churches around the state, he sometimes had to drive 500 miles each week to keep his appointment with Las Vegas’ least fortunate.
Before moving back to Las Vegas this summer, he made the trip weekly from Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Ely for six years.
“I would find myself back in Las Vegas every week,” he said. “I think I have a spirit of being able to do things like that.”
45th year as priest
Next week McShane will celebrate his 45th year as a priest — a calling he said he first heard while attending a Catholic school in San Francisco as a child. To this day, he is still a fan of the Golden State Warriors and the San Francisco 49ers.
Before going to the seminary in his late 20s, McShane served in the Army Reserve from 1964 to 1970 and earned a history degree from the University of San Francisco in 1967. He was ordained in Reno in 1974.
Since then he has served as a priest in Catholic churches across the state, including in Carson City, where he led prayers at the state Senate and Assembly and his parish included former Gov. Mike O’Callaghan, and at Saint Thomas Aquinas Cathedral in Reno.
In 1979, he was assigned to the Catholic Diocese of Las Vegas. Then, in 1982, he began traveling across the state, spending 14 years in Tonopah, Virginia City, Fallon and Laughlin before returning to Las Vegas in 1996. Three years later, he became the chaplain at Catholic Charities.
It was there that his vision to fill gaps in homeless services clashed with that of the church establishment.
In 2004, amid disagreement over how to serve the homeless, then-Bishop Joseph Pepe dismissed McShane from his position as chaplain. Two years later McShane was reassigned to posts in Caliente and Amargosa. He split the next seven years between the towns before moving to Ely.
All the while, he kept up his weekly ministry in Las Vegas.
On Monday the priest with the soft voice, thin gray hair and silver glasses made his rounds to bless the food for a Thanksgiving themed giveaway.
He stopped at one point to embrace Kanisha Holden Munson, a deaf woman originally from Kenya whom he first encountered this summer roaming the streets wearing only scraps of clothing.
She greeted McShane as she rolled a baby stroller bearing her few possessions and a cup of fresh fruit and apple sauce.
McShane used sign language to speak to her.
“Are you OK?” he mouthed as he signed the words before giving her a gift card and a tiny flashlight.
Tears welled in Munson’s eyes and she held up the large silver cross around her neck.
As McShane made his rounds, he kissed many of those who swarmed him, most of whom he knew by their first names.
“Hi, Father,” came from all directions when McShane made his way through the dark lot.
“I wish all of you a very happy, healthy and holy Thanksgiving,” he said. “And may God put the weather up a little bit so we won’t be so cold. Amen.”
Diving into the trunk of his car, he emerged to pass out socks, underwear and warm Mexican blankets. He also handed out $5 gift cards to McDonald’s.
On most Mondays, he has bus passes, but on this day he had misplaced them.
“It must be my old age,” he apologized.
Nearby, McShane’s army of volunteers passed out jackets, hats, gloves and sweaters. Others served hot chocolate, warm pizza, mashed potatoes, turkey and other fixings to the hungry.
The neighborhood is one of Las Vegas’ roughest areas, but police do not hover around during his street feedings.
Clark County and city officials have publicly urged people to donate to charities serving the homeless rather than giving food and items to them directly, but McShane’s movement has not been bothered by the powers that be.
McShane said some of the concerns about trash are valid, but the good Samaritans spend time cleaning up.
“I think we have to work together and realize there is a place for us all,” he said. “There’s a place for institutional charity, but there’s also a place for simple people who want to buy something extra and serve hands on.”
This week, John Davis, a volunteer who owns his own security company, stepped in to escort a man who appeared to be instigating a fight away from the crowd. He also has offered to provide McShane with a security detail, but the man with the adoring entourage wasn’t interested.
“We’ve tried to give Father McShane some space, but he doesn’t want it,” Davis said. “He doesn’t believe there should be any barriers between him and the people he serves.”
As this week’s event was winding down, four kids rolled a shopping cart down the street filled with food, holiday cards with candy canes on them, and enough clothes and household items to get them through the week.
Leading the pack was Aalaya Johnson, who said she and her six siblings live down the street.
“Father McShane does a lot to help. If he has it, he’ll give it,” she said. “He doesn’t have to, but he does. Here, we can get the stuff we need, so we only have to go to the grocery store.”
Nearby, Christine Ruland, 81, known on the streets as “the mac and cheese lady” for her casserole of choice, shivered under her thick coat. Ruland said she has been volunteering for four years without missing a beat, but marvels at McShane’s longevity and strength of purpose.
“When you think of saints, Father McShane is probably one of them,” she said. “He’s real. He means what he says and he does what he promises.”