For more than six years, I have served the homeless population of my community through a ministry of PazNaz Church called Church in the Park. Every Sunday morning, volunteers meet at a local park and feed 60–100 people with breakfast burritos, chili, donuts, and other foods. A dedicated crew arrives early at the church kitchen to cook and prepare these meals so that they can be transported to the park.
Pre-COVID, we’d set up tables, chairs, drink stations, and include a Sunday message from a pastor. Since the COVID restrictions have been in place, we prepare ‘to-go’ bags so that we can go forward feeding people in compliance with restrictions.
This ministry has never failed to serve on a Sunday rain, shine, or COVID for more than 20 years. During the depths of the COVID lockdowns, it was the only organization still serving the homeless in Pasadena.
I love serving my part in this mission. Unless I’m sick or out of town, I’m there. Part of the reason is actually selfish. I genuinely gain fulfillment and satisfaction from helping people. It gives me a boost.
If you aren’t currently involved in volunteering in some capacity, I suggest giving it a try. Chances are you will get more than you give.
I have developed relationships with many of the regulars at Church in the Park. It feels good to be on a first-name basis with a number of people that probably feel invisible for most of their day. They have enriched my life much more than they know.
Homelessness is a complicated problem. I really don’t know what the solutions are. Everyone has an opinion it seems. I wish we had a definitive way of turning this problem around.
And as it seems to spiral further and further out of control in American cities, it’s meaningful to be reminded that these are real people. It’s easy to think about them in the abstract if you don’t know anyone who is homeless. Here are some of the things I’ve learned from serving them.
1. There are a lot of very smart people who are homeless.
Among the homeless people I personally know are educators, combat veterans, and even an atmospheric physicist. That last one might sound dubious to you. Some might say that these people are inflating their past positions to sound impressive.
I’m sure that happens.
But many of these people are excellent conversationalists and well-read. Even if they have puffed up their resumes to impress me, it’s hard to fake the ability to carry on an erudite conversation on a range of subjects. And I know several people in this population who can do just that.
It’s humbling to think about how homelessness can happen to anyone. That includes me under the right set of circumstances.
2. Homelessness has more causes than people think.
It’s true that chemical dependence and mental illness top the list. But there are many other causes besides these two.
There are people who have fled domestic abuse. People who have immigration problems. Senior citizens who have been forgotten.
Before serving, I was quick to assume that a homeless person either abuses drugs and alcohol or is mentally ill.
But having gotten to know homeless people personally, I know this it’s not necessarily true. Even if it is true, these are humans who need help. Chemical abuse and mental illness don’t give us an excuse to write them off.
3. You never know what kind of impact you can have on other people.
One Sunday morning, after the food had been served and we were breaking down tables and cleaning up, I was approached by a man in his early 30s who said he wanted to talk. I stopped what I was doing to listen.
He said, “So this is the last time you’ll be seeing me here.” I paused and then asked him why. “Because my wife and I got permanent housing.” I congratulated him on this exciting milestone.
He then said, “I just wanted you to know that of all of the volunteers, you were the one that had the biggest impact on me. You have always been so kind to my wife and I,” and then he gave me a hug.
It made my month. The crazy thing is that I didn’t remember him. Though I’ve established relationships and know many regulars by name, I didn’t remember him.
You never know how you might affect someone by just smiling and being kind to them.
4. I might need them more than they need me.
Many people can relate when I say that this pandemic has made me realize how dependent I am on other people. I have always considered myself to be an individualist.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t need other people. I do.
When the face-to-face social interaction stopped in March, I felt a pit in my stomach. I had been taking for granted all of the social interactions I enjoyed every day.
The committed leaders at PazNaz bravely kept Church in the Park going throughout the pandemic. Since all of my other social interaction was drying up, I treasured the weekly Church in the Park service more than ever before.
In May, I got very sick and it was assumed to be COVID-19. I needed to quarantine and stop serving. In addition to the health hell, it was also painful to miss seeing everyone for those months spent suffering alone.
I needed the interaction and missed it terribly.
5. Some of the strongest people of faith I know are homeless.
I am astounded by the supernatural faith I see in some of the homeless. Not basing one’s faith on one’s circumstances is a fundamental scriptural principle.
But really. Would I be able to stay so strong and unshakable if I were homeless? I don’t know.
It’s human to look around and evaluate our circumstances. If we’re near the bottom, it’s natural to question faith.
I have met numerous people in the homeless community who, despite being under terrible circumstances, maintain a sunny disposition and a positive, faith-filled attitude. It is inspiring. But it also is a call to humility. My toughest day doesn’t compare to the darkness many of these people need to face all the time.
They live in dangerous proximity to many threats. Drugs. Crime. Disease. Despair. It’s a testament to the resilience of the human spirit to see how some of these people are able to stay so positive and faithful.
There are so many ways to make an impact by serving other people. I have found a special blessing in helping people who, on the surface, can’t repay the favor. That was my thought when I got started. Help the vulnerable who can’t help me back. What I discovered, though, was that they have helped me back in profound ways.
And I am so grateful.
Image courtesy of RODNAE Productions.