When I was in high school, I helped out with the NW Suburban PADS program, which provided temporary shelter for the homeless during the winter months. As a PADS volunteer, I assisted with setting up the cots and serving meals to the guests. My favorite part, however, was in getting to know the guests. Up until that point, my only experience with homeless guys were when I had to awkwardly pass them by on the streets downtown and not make eye contact or give them money (because who knows what they are going to do with the money, right?, and what good would I be doing if I was just supporting their drug and/or alcohol addiction?). My experience with PADS opened my eyes and heart just a little bit wider, so I could start seeing “the other” as something more relate-able. I loved talking with the guests and getting to know their stories. I learned that the people I saw at PADS shelters could be people I see walking around the grocery store on any given weekend. They were absolutely normal. Nothing weird about them.
My favorite FAVORITE part of PADS was getting to know S and W. S and W were both guests at the site, and they were a hoot and a half. We used to have dinner together and shoot some pool. S had these crazy coke-bottle glasses that made his eyes huge, and W had amazing stories about his experiences with the Spirit and speaking in tongues. I used to just hang out and shoot pool with them so much and so late into the evening that the other guests stopped seeing me as a volunteer. One of the best compliments I had ever received occurred one night as I was getting ready to leave, and I was saying goodbye to S and W and some other new friends when the new guys were like, “Where are you going?” I replied, “Home” and they looked shocked and admitted that they thought I was a guest. I felt a great sense of accomplishment in being able to blend in well enough to be mistaken for a guest, and I suppose that is where my social conscience began to form. I realized that the best way to reach out and minister to others is to meet them where they are, and love them for who they are. Being mistaken for a guest confirmed to me that I was doing things the right way, that I wasn’t keeping them at a distance, that I was loving them for who they were, where they were. I also started to get mad that these people were homeless to begin with. How could such amazing people be without the basic necessities of life? They deserved food, shelter, clean clothes, and a shower. They were awesome. It boggled my mind how we could be living in such a wealthy area, where folks have homes big enough to house at least 100 people in their living rooms alone, and yet the guys I met were living out of their cars if they were lucky.
A couple years later, one summer after my first or second year in college, I went downtown with some of my friends from home. It was a real spur-of-the-moment thing, and I was mostly excited about having this freedom to go downtown without needing to tell my parents. When we got downtown we started to wander around, when we happened across a man sitting on a street corner in front of a White Hen. At first I didn’t even notice him, as he was sitting in a dark corner, wearing dark clothes, and had dark skin, but he made his presence known to us when he asked if we could get him something to eat. He wasn’t asking for money… he was hungry. He needed dinner, and he couldn’t afford it. My friends and I went in to White Hen, and I really wanted to get this guy a sandwich. Really bad. But for some reason, I didn’t. I don’t know if I was afraid of him, or afraid of what my friends would think of me, but I decided to leave the store empty handed. The man took one look at our empty hands and just said “Thanks anyway, have a great evening.” I remember this so clearly because I believe I saw the face of God that night. I am positive that I did. God was more present in the man sitting on the street corner than I ever felt him in church or on any fancy church retreat. It was a challenge to make a difference, and I failed. And I never forgot.
So now I have been accepted as a Jesuit Volunteer, and I am in the process of being placed somewhere. And I am doing it because I never forgot W and S, and I never forgot the way God himself stared at me outside of the White Hen that summer evening. It isn’t right that we pay athletes and celebrities millions of dollars a year just to entertain us, when there are so many people out there who can’t afford food. It isn’t fair that I live next to a neighborhood made up entirely of mansions for small families, when there are so many people who have to suffer cold night after cold night. It isn’t fair that our own church leaders are so busy sitting around debating stupid things about what it means to be Catholic, rather than going out and living the Gospel message and being love for every person, right where they are, no matter what kind of sticky wicket they find themselves in. Because I don’t care what these people may have done to get them to the point of living on the streets, I don’t care if it was their fault or just bad luck… every single person deserves to be treated like a human being. No one deserves to live outside with the dogs. Not a child of God, nosiree.
So I want to do a year of service because I want to help people. I want to spend the rest of my life making up for the fact that I did not feed Christ a turkey sandwich that one night. I want to do the best that I can to ensure that each person I encounter feels loved and validated as a human being.
Because if not me… then who?