Vince Eirene has been kicked out of many places, but he never expected to be booted in the midst of prayer at St. Paul's Cathedral in Oakland.
Eirene, a long-time local activist, last year toured Iraq and is well known for chaining himself to the nearby Software Engineering Institute, a Carnegie Mellon University center conducting much war-related research. It's perhaps less well known that Eirene tries to start each day with 6:45 Mass across the street.
"Obviously I wasn't putting posters up: 'Let's go to Mass.' It's not a way to win friends at a party," he jokes.
On March 1, Eirene had his eyes closed, praying in a pew, when a man in a black hoodie and jeans started talking in the aisle next to him.
"'St. Paul's Cathedral is not a place for bums to sleep,'" Eirene says he heard. "He takes me aside and blocks me from talking to the priest. He tells me to get a haircut and shave. It was just unreal. It's almost unimaginable after all I have faced, for something like this to be so upsetting ..."
Although the hirsute and, by his own admission, often disheveled activist might not be mistaken for the working stiffs who normally populate the early Mass, he doesn't know why he was mistaken for a homeless man. Eirene has been taking in homeless himself since 1977.
Religion, he says, "is your buffer between you and the world. Then you open your eyes and there's this enormous security cop. I thought it was an LSD flashback they've been telling us about."
Father Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese, referred most questions to Father Donald Breier at the Cathedral, who did not return a call for comment. But Lengwin says "I'm sure there probably is" plainclothes security at the Cathedral. "We do look for security because there are things that happen there -- just people acting out in the midst of services."
Eirene says he's seen "some really insane, aggressive panhandlers at the front door," of the church. "The priest is a really good guy," he emphasizes. "My concern is how [the security guard] will treat a homeless person if they wander upon St. Paul's Cathedral and need a warm place or are sick."
Eirene and other local activists hope to approach the bishop about the issue. He is also hoping to muster support from the local community. In the meantime, Eirene has been back to church at least once, without having to chain himself to a pew. "Going to Mass in the morning is better than Wheaties," he says.