Caritas is at our church right now. It is a shelter system here in Richmond designed to fill in gaps where other homeless shelters can't. The shelter works by housing the homeless in different churches for a week at a time. Every week the homeless pack up their meager belongings and move to a different church. It's a unique and brilliant system, I think.
Right now, our parish is in charge of ensuring each and every homeless person in the Caritas shelter is housed, showered, laundered and nourished. Not just a nourishing of the body but of the soul as well. Our parish is given the honor of hosting these 40 men and women who are down on their luck, homeless, lonely, abandoned but still somehow hopeful.
Last night a friend of mine (I'll call her Amanda ~ she wants to keep her identity and in turn her works between her and God) and her kids were blessed with the opportunity to sit and share a meal with our guests. Here is their story and I will do my best to relay it with the same passion and enthusiasm I felt coming from her as she told me about their experience.
The four of them walked into Church last night not knowing what to expect. They had never participated with Caritas before so they had no idea what to expect from the evening. Amanda said she asked another family what to expect and what to do. They were told to mingle, chat and offer to play games with our Caritas guests. Amanda knew they would be OK but the nerves were still there...how to talk to the homeless.
As they stood waiting for dinner to begin, Amanda said she noticed a woman who was struggling to make her bed. Her breathing was labored and she kept falling back into the folding chair which was placed beside her mat on the floor. Amanda made her way over to the woman and asked if she could lend a hand. The homeless woman said she was struggling to breath because of her asthma. She went on to ask Amanda if she had a fitted sheet so she could make her bed better. She had to reply "no, I'm sorry. I don't" and Amanda said her heart hurt a little for the woman as she labored to breath and struggled to make her bed. As soon as her bed was made, Amanda and her kids blended back in with the other volunteers and watched in awe as the woman finished making her bed by placing one small stuffed animal after another on her bed. The reverence with which she placed each little animal was something to behold...it was almost like they were her own pets, Amanda said.
The guests of our parish lined up for dinner and as they walked by Amanda and her kids they made small talk. Amanda said her kids were growing more and more anxious at the thought of sitting with strangers, who were homeless, and making conversation. Knowing very well that all four of them could be separated from each other during dinner, Amanda made sure she filled her kids in on ways to make small talk ~ ask questions...lots and lots of questions. Amanda and her family made their way through the dinner line with the kids keeping very close to their mom.
The four of them found a table together with three guests. The kids relief at not being separated from their mother washed over their faces and they began the meal with three people who wanted their stories to be heard. Joseph, Ryan and Keara introduced themselves to my friend and her kids. The conversation never lagged once. Ryan and Keara were both very eager to share their stories. Joseph's focus was his plate, he didn't seek out conversation and only answered questions with one or two words. Amanda told me of Ryan's struggles since leaving the army. He is alone in the world, without a person to care for him. His family is all deceased and there is no one or no place to call home. Amanda said Ryan seemed to be an old soul in a youthful body. He wanted so much for his story to be heard. He would interject and keep the conversation flowing so he could tell his story. Keara's story was similar. Her family abandoned her, she said. She doesn't know where they are now. Amanda said she was blown away by Keara's optimism and cheery disposition. Keara stayed and chatted long after both men excused themselves from the table. Amanda said her kids loosened up so much during the course of dinner. By the end of the meal they were all asking questions and participating in the conversation. Amanda said the kids all wanted to go back again tonight and share a meal with the same table of people.
After dinner was over, Amanda lingered a bit to see if there was anything else to be done. She and the kids were given brooms and dustpans and set to work. As they made their way around the room, sweeping up crumbs, Amanda said she was stopped in her tracks by the story one of the guests was telling. She said there was a woman whose joy emanated from her. She said "Hallelujah" and "praise the Lord." She told of how blessed she felt to be dining among such fine people. Amanda told me she had goosebumps as the woman went on to explain how she came to be in Richmond. Last night was this woman's first night in Richmond. She had spent the past year "displaced" due to an injury. Saying she was "displaced" seemed to be her way of easing the sting of being homeless. The woman, whose name was never mentioned, told of her stays in many other shelters, most scary...both the people and the circumstances. But at two o'clock in the morning the woman said she was awakened by God and told to go to Richmond. She had no idea how she was going to make it here but she knew she had to follow what was being told to her. She said she made her way to the bus station so she could try to get on the Megabus from Baltimore to here. She had no reservation and no way to activate her pre-paid card to pay for a ticket ~ she had nothing...until her guardian angels stepped in. They bought her ticket and made her reservation. She was on her way to Richmond. She found her way to Caritas after arriving in Richmond and felt so happy and blessed to be able to spend the night in a Church...safe. She felt safe and blessed to be housed in a Church. She felt joy to be able to share a meal with strangers in a safe place. Amanda said her joy was infectious. She said she felt blessed herself to be able to sit with a woman who has nothing but radiates joy.
Amanda and her kids can not wait to be a part of Caritas again. She said it was a night full of blessings, joy, fellowship and peace. Not of the guests of our church has anything to give but themselves. Amanda said it was one of the best nights she has ever had.
I hope I relayed some of the passion she felt last night. It was an incredible story to hear and I felt a need to share it with you.
"Whatsoever you do for the least of my children, that you do unto me..."