Saturday, February 28, 2009
Star of Hope
The Star of Hope, to quote from their mission statement, is "a Christ-centered community dedicated to meeting the needs of homeless men, women and their children. Positive life changes are encouraged through structured programs which focus on spiritual growth, education, employment, life management and recovery from substance abuse." The mission began in 1907 and is one of the longest continually-operating outreaches to the homeless in the Houston area. Today it is a huge operation, consisting of four different facilities. The mission is heavily dependent on volunteers, who donate food, money, clothing and other items, in addition to providing help with preparing and serving meals to the residents. Volunteers from all Christian traditions, as well as many other faiths and even secular organizations, participate.
Today, I took a group of 6 people to Star of Hope's Women and Family Emergency Shelter to help prepare and serve lunch. I had actually been to Star of Hope twice before. The first time was about two years ago, with a group from another local parish; that time we served lunch at the men's facility in a different part of downtown. The second time I went was in November, when I also took a group from St. Joseph's to the same shelter we went to this time. On that visit, however, they had more volunteers and didn't need our whole group to help with lunch. So, a couple of fellow parishioners and I ended up cleaning and organizing the pantry. Needless to say, my experience really wasn't interesting enought to write about.
Today, however, was a different story. While we were serving lunch, I had a great many thoughts about the people we served and about homelessness in general. I thought I might share them with you today. I pray that this might be helpful to you and thought-provoking.
We arrived at the Women and Family Shelter at about 11:30. After signing in, we were escorted to the kitchen, where we were each given a hairnet, a plastic apron, and surgical gloves. Then we went to the serving line, where we each took up a position. The first of us in line would pull out a tray and put a styrofoam bowl on it. The next would fill the bowl with soup. The third would place a ham and cheese sandwich on the tray, while the next would add some salad. My job was to place an empty cup on the tray (the residents were to fill it with one of several possible beverages that were to be found in the dining hall). I also would add a small carton of milk and a piece of apple -- but only for kids. Then the last member of our team would hand the tray to the next person in line. Having our assignments, we eagerly awaited the residents' arrival.
The residents started lining up at high noon. In they came: black, white, and Hispanic; some old, some young; some single women, some women with children, and even a few single men with children. Their faces were lined with years of dealing with extra stress that I can only imagine. But what I found amazing was the one thing they all had in common: an ear-to-ear grin. All of them said "thank you," and the gratitude that they were feeling was evident by more than their words.
And then it hit me: these dearr people had little more than the shirt on their backs, and yet they radiated contentment. They were thankful just to have a roof over their heads and a hot, nutritious meal. I couldn't help but contrast this with my own attitude. Too often, I find myself bothered because my kids wake me up too early, because my wife is too busy, because I'm not contributing enough to my 401K, because I'm tired of my wardrobe, or because I'm about to have to go without cheese and chocolate for seven weeks. The gratitude of these beautiful creations of God, the residents of the shelter, taught me a valuable lesson--a lesson that St. Paul succintly summarized to his disciple Timothy: "Now godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content" (1 Tim. 6:8).
As resident after resident gratefully accepted her tray, I looked intently at each and wondered, "Now, how did she get in this position? Was she abused as a child? Was she abused by her husband (or both)? Did she fall victim to substance abuse? Did she make a series of really bad decisions? Or is she just an average middle-class person who lost her job and couldn't keep up her house payment or pay her rent?" Of course, I didn't find out the story behind a single one of them; our job was not to study them, much less to interrogate them. Our job was simply to show the love of Christ to them by serving them, just as "the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve" (Mark 10:45).
And as I continued to place cups on each tray, I realized that, as the old saying goes, "there but for the grace of God go I." Why was I born to two parents who were committed to me and to each other, who loved me and supported me in all I did, while these dear children of God presumably were not? Why have I always had a roof over my head and a steady income? Why have I been spared from the ravages of substance abuse? Is it because I am somehow smarter, wiser, more moral, or superior in some other way to the residents? I seriously doubt it. Did God, as the Calvinists would say, foreordain that I would have a comfortable life, while he chose these to suffer? As St. Paul would say, "God forbid!" So why then, have my life and the lives of those whom I was providing with cups been so different? Why was I serving them, and not vice-versa? Why weren't THEY living in the suburbs and I in the shelter?
I'm not sure if I'll ever have an answer. I'm not sure there even IS an answer. All I know is that (at least for now) I have been spared the tragedy of homelessness. God has blessed me super-abundantly, and because of this, I must share with those whom our Lord called "the least of these." For as he said, "inasmuch as you did it to the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me" (Matt. 25:40).
I drove to the shelter hoping to be a blessing to others. I pray that I was. But most importantly, I went away blessed myself. For I was granted the highest privilege of all: in each person, I beheld the face of Jesus.