By Tanner Loper, FrancisCorps 21
I’ve been working at the Catholic Charities Men’s Shelter (CCMS) for a few months now. For many, this is a place of last resort. Even after a client is kicked out of another shelter, we’ll take them in. Even if a client has ongoing difficulties with drugs, alcohol, or mental health, we’ll make them a bed. The “bedroom” is a large open space, reminiscent of a boot camp barracks, with numbered beds and footlockers. We call it the dorm. There are some offices in a room at the back of the building. That is where caseworkers hammer away at their keyboards and talk loudly into their phones and scratch appointment notes onto scrap paper. They are required to meet with each of their clients at least once a week to register them for public assistance, and help them find employment and housing as soon as reasonably possible. Most days, I float from empty desk to empty desk (depending on who’s not around) to run tuberculosis test reports, tend to a small caseload, and enter intake forms from new clients into the homelessness management database. In the time between, I interact with clients at the front desk and by the kitchen.
Not long ago, I was asked to collect a client’s belongings into bags. He was being kicked out. I was told this was because he had failed to meet with his caseworker for three weeks straight. I obediently went to his bed and began packing. Every time I touched an item, I felt like I was trespassing on his very person. A man who hardly had himself only had three trash bags of items, and even those were subject to my consolidation. Among the items to pass through my hands were two pieces of cardboard. One was large enough to sleep on (I prayed he wouldn’t need it) and the other was small enough to be held on a street corner. He came ready to leave. On his sign was written:
Is all poetry intended? I haven’t been able to make much of this experience yet.
When Christ says that he is the poor, and that the poor are him (Mat. 25:31-46), and when we are asked to imitate him (1 Cor. 11:1), what are we supposed to do? Are we meant to perform some great feat of service for our fellow man to serve our Lord? It seems like it. Should we scour the streets for the cold and hungry to welcome them into our homes every night? Maybe. Should we renounce all our belongings and become like the poor in order to be like Christ? Probably.
Those would indeed be great feats of sanctity, but I’m coming to realize there’s more to it than that. I am reminded of something Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: “The smallest thing that can love is one of the greatest things,” and I think it’s true. I might not be living as simply as I could, and I might miss some opportunities to serve, but I pray all the time that the love of Christ might multiply my tiny deeds. Maybe one day I’ll be offered the grace of complete surrender. For now, though, I will hand over the sandwich and call the landlord just as I should. I will look at the men in the eyes and say something along the lines of “Let’s get you your own place,” or, simply, “Good morning.”
One Friday, the community was gathered for its nightly prayer. We had just finished reading St. John the Evangelist’s words: “He who loves is born of God and knows God” when we took a period of silence. There then came from the house next door a mighty and joyful song. What seemed to be a dozen people sang in their loudest voices in an unfamiliar language. Our neighbors, seldom seen, were then heard loud and clear. We just listened. As I allowed myself to be inundated by that song, I could have sworn I heard a choir of angels picking up harmonies. Notes of liquid love were weaved into every sound wave. There came in seraphic song the message “God is here too.”
It is difficult to say exactly what I look forward to in the next year. It looks a little like losing myself and a little like finding myself. I hope to learn to relate to my work and my community in a way that brings me into a closer relationship with Christ. I hope to allow the men I see every day to loosen my vanities and my pride. I look forward to the narrowing of the gap between myself and my Lord. Most of all, though, I hope to encounter His Love one moment of eye contact, one sandwich, one prayer, one song at a time.
Author’s Note (borrowed from 2 MAC 15:38): “If it is well written and to the point, that is what I wanted; if it is poorly done and mediocre, that is the best I could do.”
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