We see them everywhere: standing at the expressway exit with a cardboard sign that they seem to pass to one another in shifts, leaning on the wall outside the drugstore, sitting around in dejected groups in a park. We're afraid of them, or at least I was always afraid of them. Sometimes I would give them a couple of dollars, but I would never look them in the eye or speak, and I was never sure if I should give them anything. I could make a pretty good argument one way or the other.
Once I ate dinner with a former homeless person who had made it “all the way back.” I thought, “Great. Now I can ask somebody who really knows whether or not I should give those people money.” So, I asked, and he thought a minute and said, “I don't know.” Phooey. But I did have one friend whom I really admired and who said she just didn't worry about what they did with the money, it was just her business to give it. And one day, I was out with another friend and her daughter when a well-known homeless man came up and asked for some money, and they gave him some. The really remarkable thing to me was the way they gave it. They were happy to be able to give it. They were almost excited. That really made me think, and from then on, I would usually hand over a couple of dollars, but I can't say that I was at all excited.
The next challenge turned up at the seminary where I worked. Several years ago, a group of people began to meet there every Tuesday to make Burritos to distribute to homeless people downtown. Since my office was only two doors down from the small kitchen where they worked, I could always hear what was going on down there, and they always seemed to be having a great time. I always thought that I should go with them some time, but the time never seemed right.
|This is an older picture, taken when they used to distribute burritos at a downtown park. Now, after some discussion with the police, they go to the parking lot of Catholic church.|
Finally last November, I decided that as an Advent penance, I would go with them. I was really nervous though. I'm not really sure now what it was that I was afraid of, but there was something. I went to my boss's office and told him I was going to go, but I had to ride with him and that he better stand next to me every second of the time we were there. He laughed at me and said that was okay.
Well, I can't explain what happened when I got there, but all I know is that the second I stepped out of the car, my life changed. I lost every trace of fear and nervousness to the point that I can't begin to remember what I felt before. And the people were so different than I expected them to be. They line up quietly and stand waiting patiently even when the food is late getting there and it's 95º or 28º F. They seldom complain. I've hardly ever heard anyone complain even on the night when we ran out of food before everyone had eaten. They are very polite. They are very grateful. They say, “Thank you,” they say, “God bless you.”
I love handing burritos to these people. It's a sacramental action. I love looking straight into their eyes and touching their hands. I would love to get down on my knees and kiss their feet if it wouldn't embarrass the heck out of them. It's because I know they are Jesus.
I'm not saying that there is never a problem. Sometimes somebody is way too drunk, or once a couple of guys were fighting when they got there. I also know that if I met them in another situation, they might not be so nice. One of the women who used to come to eat was murdered in the church parking lot by another homeless person in the middle of the night. So, there's always an awareness that something could happen, but I never worry because I know I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing.
Then, there is that scripture. I think I've mentioned that before. You know, the one where the Lord says to those on His left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, Naked and you did not visit me.” I used to worry about that quite a bit, but I don't anymore.
Since I changed jobs, I haven't been able to help with the burritos on Tuesdays, but I plan to start making cookies or something and going down to meet them at the parking lot. My pecan tree has put a dent in these plans, but as soon as I get home, I want to start. Also, at my new job, I am constantly challenged by those who don't have enough. They don't have food. Their utilities have been turned off. They need gas. They want money. So often I'm frustrated because there is nothing I can do. There is a group at the parish that has a clothes closet and that hands out food, but we recently sold our high school and the group's building sat on the property that was sold, so now all their stuff is sitting in a POD waiting for another space to be renovated, and the funds to renovate it are slow in coming. The pastor bought some food that we can at least hand out for people to eat then and there, but it's a far cry from all that's needed. Very few of our parishioners have much more than they need, but hopefully we'll be able to pull together a little something more to help. Pray for us.
So you see, in my current situation I haven't been able to use the word “homeless” to describe myself even in jest. I'm not homeless. I have generous friends, and a supportive family, and even if I had to leave this lovely place where I'm staying, I know I could find someplace else to go. I have so much more than I need. And every day on my way to work, I pass under an expressway where I can look up to the place that looks like this:
|This isn't the expressway I am talking about. I thought it would be rude to take a picture of that one, like I was taking a picture through the window of someone's house.|
There I see the “homes” of many homeless people. They have already left for the day, but all their boxes and bags and things are still there. It humbles me a bit. It makes me sad, and it makes me a bit fearful to think of all the things that I have that they don't. Fearful because I've been given so much, and so much will be expected. It's not just the possessions. It's the healthy mind and body, and the abilities and the family—and of course, the Faith, although I must say that that is the one thing that some of them have, and that's another humbling thing because how many of us could hold on to our faith in that situation?
Oh, and that phrase I used earlier—making it all the way back—I heard that from one of the men, Logan. He has a big addiction problem and he asked me one night to pray for him to make it all the way back. So, I do. Pray for him, too.