At Home

This article was written in May 2011. Although I no longer work at CrossRoads Ministry, I am still connected to the work facilitated there. I am also still connected to my friends at St. Vincent de Paul.

I stand in a line of huddled bodies, taking in sights and smells that have become familiar. I catch the eye of a stranger or two and smile – “How are you?” I ask. “Hello.” The chatter of friends murmurs amidst the clang of pots and pans from the kitchen. I scan the rafters, the stained glass windows, the tables with vases of bright flowers. We fall silent and remove our hats as a prayer is offered, blessing the food we are about to share, and declare “Amen!” together as the line begins to slowly file along. Those who have come to eat – old and young people of all shapes and colors and creeds – resume their talk and make their way through the lunch bar. I find an ease in this space. I am at St. Vincent de Paul’s Open Hand Kitchen. Here, once again, I know I will find good food that nourishes me and good friends who enrich my spirit. Here, I will break bread with strangers and friends…and, more often than not, I will break open my heart in profound ways. Here, I will discover people who are on a journey, who I can connect with and learn from. Here, I find wondrous paradox in the faces and stories of those I meet. Here, I have found a home.

I remember when I first came to eat lunch here at the Open Hand Kitchen, when I felt apprehensive and unsure walking into a soup kitchen to eat a meal with strangers. Such apprehensions are now far, far gone. I search the tables for an empty seat, shouldering my backpack and carrying a tray loaded with lunch. As I settle into a seat across from a new face, it feels like second nature to strike up a conversation, always of mundane beginnings – “Hi, I’m Mandy. How is your day? My, it sure is cold!” – that oftentimes flows to remarkable revelations.

It was on a retreat at CrossRoads Minstry, an outreach of St. William church, that I was first invited to spend time with the folks at St. Vincent de Paul. As a sophomore in high school, the thought of knowingly entering into the company of someone who might be homeless was foreign, and the idea of initiating a conversation with that person went against every notion of “common sense,” caution and culture. It was acceptable to volunteer, serving food to those lining up for a meal; my Catholic upbringing invited such “compassion.” Didn’t Jesus say to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty? At the time, I was more than secure with charity. I didn’t mind reaching out with plastic-gloved hands and a ladle, comforted by the barrier between me and “them,” sharing a smile, passing a tray and moving on to the next person in line. But walking down the street, I avoided the eyes of people who might ask me for some spare change. My life connected to theirs only to the extent that I was present to serve them. Otherwise, I would rather be safe than sorry. If I offered an opening, who knew what might be at risk.

What I found the summer of 2004 opened my eyes wide and shattered my selfish complacency. In a few short days of playing, laughing, sharing and loving, my life was utterly transformed. In the men at St. Vincent de Paul, I found true friends. I found vibrant human beings with complex stories, with families and hopes and struggles and fears. I met people who opened their lives and welcomed me when I felt most isolated and afraid. I found companions who cared about my life, who felt gifted by my mere presence, with whom I loved to spend time. The veil of dissimilarity slowly lifted, and instead of feeling anxious, I grew more excited each day as I walked up the steps to the metal cafeteria doors. I looked forward to seeing my friends again, people who the world labeled “homeless,” but who I now saw as much, much more. As I hugged Ricky and laughed with Russell, I finally understood how self-centered I had been to exclude these precious people from my life, and how desperately I needed them. In trying to live a safe and careful life, I had in fact been leading one of great harm, both to myself and others. These men revealed the deep, divine truth: that I was the one who was hungry for community and thirsty for connection, and they were the ones serving me. While it is holy, necessary work to attend to the needs of others, I had been missing the root: We are profoundly connected.  They didn’t need me to serve them lunch and then forget their faces; it wouldn’t help to pass them some money and move on; their lives would not be helped by my shallow, distant pity. These friends needed me to care, really care for them. And I needed to look into their eyes and see my self reflected in their being. I needed to wade in the depths of their stories to behold the God-light blazing at the core of their hearts. I needed to hear their songs of pain, of friendship, of failure, of love, because they are the same songs I am singing. I needed them to remind me that my life could so easily reflect theirs on the surface, and that although they look dissimilar, our life-threads are woven into the same tapestry, overlapping to form an image incomplete without one another.

If we take some time to discover it, our paths as human beings intersect in profound and remarkable ways. Mother Theresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” These magnificent men reminded me what we all so desperately need, and humbly showed me, in precious moments of care, how a world of peace can look.

Seven years later, I now work at CrossRoads Ministry and am privileged to bring retreat groups of high schoolers through the doors of the Open Hand Kitchen. I offer them the invitation I was offered those years ago: to have a conversation, and perhaps a radical conversion of heart. In these short visits throughout the year, I continue to find new friends and visit with old. I’ve met people who are urban and rural; those with Master’s degrees and those who only completed grade school; people who have owned restaurants and have driven trucks cross-country; those who fell on hard times and those who were born with mental illness; young people, old people, veterans, brothers, fathers, grandpas, professionals, students, addicts, musicians, extraverts, introverts, sports fans, men of faith…in short, I have met human beings. All come hungry to share a meal. Some stay for a while and move on to the next phase of their life journey; some continue to come back again and again. I keep coming back, too. In conversations with these homeless men, I know I will find refuge in our common struggles, needs, and dreams. In relationships with men who have no shelter to call their own, I find a safe haven for altering my life for the better. For me, St. Vincent de Paul offers sanctuary from a world that screams praises of division, of separateness, of self-centeredness, of complacency. These men are my teachers, and in each encounter, I learn a little more about what it means to love. They continue to make me kinder, more open, more compassionate, and ever more in awe of the profound responsibility we have to care deeply for one another.

As I look around the dining room, I see how a world of peace can be: a world much like this holy space, one in which even the most unlikely people sit at tables together, well-fed and cared-for, reminding each other of who we really are, and who we are meant to be. Here, I am at home.