‘Do Whatever He Tells You’: laywoman serves the homeless
By Jean Torkelson
Photo by Jean Torkelson/DCR
The latest story in an occasional series exploring how Colorado Catholics put into practice, in their own lives, Mary’s counsel—and Archbishop Samuel Aquila’s episcopal motto—“Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).
When Tanya Cangelosi finally licked her misery-filled past and fell in step with Jesus, she fully embraced the advice of Mary, the Mother of God: “Do whatever he tells you.”
Still, the feisty Denver activist can’t resist challenging the Lord a little.
“If he asks me to do something I fight him every step of the way,” Cangelosi said during an interview with the Denver Catholic Register. “I tell him, ‘Are you kidding? That’s not happening!’”
But Cangelosi never stays stubborn for long: “Well, alright, if you want me to do it, you have to put it all in motion.”
So far, the Lord always has.
Following his prompts, Cangelosi, 61, has become one of the city’s best known advocates for the homeless. Her best known success is the Denver Homeless Ministry which she founded in 2006. Its mission, as described on its website www.thedhms.org, is “to serve the homeless by seeing them as our equals and friends … we care for them because Christ cares for us.”
The funny thing is, it took years for Cangelosi to believe that Christ cared for her.
“I was beyond lost,” as she puts it.
Cangelosi was so far gone that her amazing comeback forms a chapter in a 2009 book by Matthew Pinto, “Freedom: Twelve Lives Transformed by the Theology of the Body” (Ascension Press).
“I lived a depraved life, one filled with illicit sex, drugs and alcohol,” she told Pinto in a chapter fittingly titled “The Long and Winding Road.”
Cangelosi grew up in a seedy Chicago housing project. As a child she was abused in every way, rejected by family and sent for a time to an orphanage. She ended up on the street, where she fell into a life of petty crime, drugs and easy sex. As she explained to Pinto, sometimes she sought money and sometimes affection, but in either case, “I made myself available for sex.”
A lifeline surfaced when, in a series of events, Cangelosi was led to a Protestant Bible study, then to an evangelical college, then to a church, and eventually to a husband who was nominally Catholic. The couple moved to Colorado, she became a Catholic and began attending St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder.
Out of curiosity, Cangelosi joined a study group on Pope John Paul II’s groundbreaking work, theology of the body, at the nearby Sacred Heart of Mary Parish in Boulder. That led to a personal epiphany—despite her grim past, she, too, was called to share in God’s life: “We are called to participate in the very inner-life of God!” she told Pinto.
Today, seemingly tireless, she seeks out people who reflect what she once was—homeless, street-worn and lost. Her ministry is a whirlwind of outreach programs, events and regular street contact designed to prove to the homeless that Jesus intends them to be “equals and friends.” She also teaches young people and their youth ministers how to effectively reach out to those in need.
She is known for her Christmas banquets and monthly “Lunch in the Park” as well as her St. Rita Softball Tournament for parishes, now in its eighth year (for three of those years, Bishop James Conley threw out the first pitch).
Now single, with an annulment, she supports herself with a job in transportation services at Denver International Airport, where she has a special heart for assisting the wheelchair-bound and elderly.
As for putting the Lord in charge? A huge challenge was the music fest for the homeless she envisioned in Civic Center Park. The cost and complexity was so daunting she thought,
“That’s not happening.”
Yet she pulled it off—twice.
“So many people won’t take a leap of faith because they want to wait until everything is in place,” she said. “But you just have to say ‘Yes.’ When Mary said, ‘Do whatever he tells you’ Jesus turned water into wine. So if Jesus tells me to do it, I just know it’s gonna work.”
Jean Torkelson: 303-715-3122; www.twitter.com/DCRegister