I recently had the opportunity to join Holy Name of Mary Church in San Dimas for its Winter Shelter. Together with four additional San Gabriel Region parishes and other church communities, they house more than 200 homeless people a night from December through March.
They provide meals, beds, restrooms, showers, parking, entertainment and a sense of community to people in need.
It is a triumph. The work of the volunteers and their attention to every detail makes clear that their goal is not merely to provide a shelter from the cold night, but to remind people of their dignity.
The eighth-grade class led grace before the meal. Each place was set with a hand-drawn placemat and prayer cards from the schoolchildren.
They offered greetings such as, “May God bless you and keep you safe,” and my favorite, “You’re a flower in God’s garden.” Holy Name of Mary will see more than 1,200 volunteers during the 16 days they host the winter shelter.
Guests told me about distant family members, their dogs, the weather and their health while I poured them milk. They were unhurried. They had second and third helpings of the tri-tip dinner. They savored the hot fudge sundae dessert.
A number of men clearly lived very difficult lives. We would call them the chronically homeless. Some exhibited signs of mental illness and jumped at noises or conversed with unseen friends. Some needed special meals because they had too few teeth to chew the meat.
I also noticed a number of guests of a different sort — those we call economically homeless. I met a mom with two teenage daughters who kept to themselves and listened to music through dinner. The daughters wore nice clothes and makeup. They must have just come from school. It is likely that none of their friends know they’re homeless.
As I was getting ready to leave, a man approached me wanting to talk about “some theological questions.”
David looked like anyone you might meet on the street. Clean and well-groomed, he had clearly known better days not so long ago. He’d grown up Catholic but hadn’t prayed in a very long time. I said I’d pray for him, and I asked that he pray for me.
He thought for a minute then said, “What? You mean right now?” So we did. He closed his eyes and, haltingly, began talking to Jesus. He told him that he was embarrassed that he didn’t know how to pray, but that he really wanted to ask Jesus to bless me because I’d been kind to him.
He even asked Jesus to watch over my son because he knew the kind of trouble teenage boys could get into. After years away from prayer, his first attempt was intercessory.
On Ash Wednesday, I met a young woman named Erin on Fair Oaks Avenue in Pasadena. As we chatted, she kept glancing at my forehead. It took me a minute to remember I had ashes.
She didn’t know what they were, so I gave her a very simple explanation. In a moment, her face was transformed. Beaming, she said, “That’s all I want to do, is live like Jesus!”
She shared that she suffered from severe depression and had a very difficult time living with other people, but that in her heart she knew she was called to bring the love of Jesus into the world. The depth of her faith was astonishing.
Sanitized discussions analyzing statistics and causes tell us nothing of the people themselves. The sheer number of homeless on sidewalks, beneath overpasses, on hillsides and in riverbeds can be overwhelming.
Instead of compelling us to action, it can lead to a type of paralysis: Where does one start? In LA, the homeless should convict us. They are our particular poor. They inhabit the peripheries in our own neighborhoods. The homeless in LA are in our way for a reason.
There can be a fear of being too faith-forward. We don’t want to offend. Or worse, we don’t want to be laughed at. But if our faith impels us to do works of mercy, to encounter people and go out into the peripheries, then our faith is at home there.
People are hungry for meaning. When we are intentional about the reason for our love and our actions, we open the door to conversations of faith, healing and forgiveness that people are longing to have.
Whether you wear your faith on your forehead or your t-shirt or in the smile with which you greet people, be sure it is prominent. Recognizing the humanity in the people around us means realizing their search for meaning parallels ours.
When we meet that search with love and not just material resources, we honor their dignity and ours.
kathleen-domingo is director of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Office of Life, Justice and Peace.