For the past year, our parish has been participating in a ministry that provides temporary housing to homeless families. Through this program, 13 Juneau families have found permanent housing and employment. The families stay in our parish center three times a year for a week. Volunteer parishioners provide meals and host in the evenings and also provide overnight supervision. Recently Charles and I volunteered to prepare a meal of hot soup, bread and cookies.
We showed up with the food at 5:30. Charles had to preach at Mass, so I set up the tables with the dishes and the serving area, put the soup in the stove to heat up, sliced the bread and got ready for the family to arrive. When they saw what we had made, they didn’t like it and asked for something else instead.
This hurt my feelings and made me a little angry because we had prepared this meal especially for them.
I have to admit this was not the most fulfilling experience of volunteering that I had ever had.
On the way home, Charles noticed that I was out of sorts. I told him it just really hadn’t gone like I thought it was supposed to. The first couple of times that we had participated in cooking for families, while they weren’t effusive in their thanks, they did seem to appreciate what we had done in cooking a meal for them.
I told him that it was frustrating to have prepared this meal and have my offering looked as “second skimmings” and to have them turn up their noses at this good food that we are prepared.
Charles said that Dorothy Day, famous advocate of the poor (and soon to be a saint) had written about this. She said that often times, the poor, being powerless will, when confronted with a choice will sometimes exercise their small amount of power by choosing not to accept what is offered with gratitude. She also said that often times being with the people that she was helping in her House of Hospitality, where she lived with the poor, serving them meals, cleaning up after them and helping them in any way that she could, all the while trying to preserve their dignity, was very difficult. They were dirty, sometimes they were rude, sometimes they were exhibiting symptoms of mental illness or alcohol addiction or drug abuse. And sometimes they just were people with unpleasant personalities. In my previous job working at a homeless clinic, I dealt with the homeless poor (mostly men) every single day and they were (with a few exceptions) always very grateful for everything that we did for them and were often effusive in their thanks. And of course that made me feel good knowing that I was doing something to help them.
Jesus taught us that the poor will always be with us and that our job is to help them. Dorothy Day said that we must see the poor as Christ, in his most distressing disguise. Jesus didn’t say when you do something for the poor they will be grateful for your help. Sometimes they will be smelly, dirty, obstreperous and obnoxious. But as we were instructed by Mother Teresa, we are to love them anyway.
This was a difficult lesson for me to hear from Charles, Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa, and come to think of it, Jesus. But someone once said that we don’t help the poor because they are Christians, we help the poor because WE are Christians. And we should do it unconditionally without expectation of any thanks, acknowledgement or gratitude. This was Very Hard Lesson indeed.
Poverty is ugly, but my attitude was uglier.
“It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.”
St. Vincent de Paul