Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I Was Homeless and you Gave Me Shelter

For the last few weeks my parish has opened its parish hall on Friday evenings for those who need shelter from the nights we have had with temperatures dipping into the teens and twenties. It was a risk for this parish, a world they had only known from a distance as they always helped other parishes and institutions in serving food and volunteering at Food Pantries. And while this was good, it also didn't impact the parish as a whole, but mainly individuals.

At first we did it with an idealistic zeal as a good thing to do, not as a responsibility. Most of the volunteers were green in dealing with the homeless. Many of them expected the "humble poor" dressed in rags who would be grateful for a place to stay. They didn't expect them to show up in down parkas, most with varying degrees of mental illness and/or addiction, some perfectly sane, some are angry, some are not.

When I was at the Catholic Worker in New York City in the early 1980's I learned a great deal about living with the homeless of the Bowery and St. Mark's area. Living with the homeless was an eye opening experience. Most at the Catholic Worker had some form of mental or developmental disability. They formed a community that was held together by faith and hope and love. Did it change them? Well, it didn't change their mental issues and it didn' change their highly idiosyncratic personalities. While we didn't try and change them directly, we ask everyone to act with respect and in a non-violent manner. There were consequences for violent behavior and disrespect (usually "time out" from the shelter for a time until repentance could take hold).

While there Dorothy Day had posted a quote from St. Vincent DePaul which I never forgot:

You will find out that Charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the kettle of soup and the full basket. But you will keep your gentleness and your smile. It is not enough to give soup and bread. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor, always smiling and good-humored. They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting master you will see. And the uglier and the dirtier they will be, the more unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.

This quote is a mystery (and a tad offensive, maybe) to those who are giving up their time to help someone in need, but its true. One thing that I find is that most people want to be independant. We get angry and grouchy when our life depends on the good will or cooperation of another. Human Beings are mostly wired to take care of themselves when they reach adulthood. It's a self-esteem issue. When we can't it upsets us. Many of our guests resent being homeless for they are there for a variety of reasons: rejection by family and friends, health reasons as one of the guys had cancer and was rendered asset-less from the treatments with no medical insurance, others are on that first step to recovery from addiction to alcohol or drugs, others had economic disasters beyond their control visited upon them.

When we serve the poor to make us feel good we will soon run out of steam. They don't respond the way we want often. They make us nervous, feel vulnerable, sometimes take us for granted. I always go back to St. Vincent's quote when I have times like this.

One must have some sense of a higher power who asks us to be love in the world. Its hard as hell, but it is requested nonetheless. As I have studied all major world religions there is not one that says God doesn't require inconvenient love of us. So there must be truth there.

I learn about myself--I am pushed up against my selfishness, pride and limited ability to love when I actually live with the poor for an evening. Instead of interacting with them, I resist. I notice spending all my time in the kitchen with people "like me" rather than our guests as a shelter from these truths.

Its a process to love the poor. We must see ourselves in them. We must listen to their yearnings, desires and hopes and hear the echo's of that in our own heart and life. Its not hard but it is an act of the will to be exposed to the humanity of the poor.


At 10:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When we are truly with the poor, we come to understand that they are not so different from us except for their circumstances. It is frightening how much their stories sound like our friends', our sisters', brothers' and friends' stories... except somehow, things turned out differently.
It seems almost as random as they picked door number two rather than door number three. They forgot to pay the wrong bill, instead of one that just enacted an extra fee. They got caught driving after a drink too many. Their girlfriend went into a rage and burned their belongings. It was that fire, that operation, that sudden death in the family...
After years of working with families, I have come to know that each families is a snapshot in time. Things change in families; what it looked like in 1999 is not what it looks like in 2009. So it is with the homeless.
We have many active members of our congregation who first came through our doors needing the soup kitchen. We are now sheltering people who may shelve our groceries next month, if they are lucky.
It is also likely that some pledging members of our congregation could become desperately needy at some time in the future. No one knows how long this "recession" with last or how severe it will become.
When we distance ourselves from the homeless, we are avoiding looking at people who are sometimes not all that much different. It can be frightening, but not for the reasons that come to mind first.

At 10:24 AM, Blogger T. Scott Allen said...

Thank you anonymous ---so true! Who are you???


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