On Friday night, I traveled into Chicago along with a group from my church. We spent a night volunteering with The Night Ministry, a group which - as their web site describes it - "serves homeless and runaway youth, working poor adults, uninsured and underinsured individuals seeking medical assistance, children who are unsupervised and need a place to gather in safety, and others who have "fallen through the cracks" of our social service systems."
We brought a load of sandwiches, chips, fruit, cookies, and bottled water with us - as well as several bags of new white socks. Along with members of the Night Ministry staff, we lined up along the curb near a busy Chicago intersection, and passed these out to people in need, many of whom were already assembled and awaiting us when we arrived. (This was a regularly scheduled event called "Beat the Heat"- ironic in this case, since it was a very cool May night. It takes place every Friday at the same time and same intersection.)
This was not a grim or depressing experience in any way. There was a boombox playing, and many people - from among those we served and our group alike - were dancing. People ate and talked and hung out - most of them knew each other. And many members of our group who had volunteered before knew people who had come to be served.
I'm going to be honest here. This was my second time volunteering with the Night Ministry and I'll definitely do it again. But before my first time, I was a little nervous about what I'd encounter. I had as many fears and trepidations about homeless people as any other privileged suburbanite. When I lived in Indianapolis, there was one homeless man we all referred to as the Quarter Man. He roamed the downtown streets, day in and day out, always in the same dark green polyester leisure suit, always smelling bad. Most days, he'd politely approach you and ask for a quarter - if you didn't give it to him, he'd just go on his way. But some days, you'd see him storming the sidewalks, ranting to someone only he could he see, raging and screaming obscenities. Although he never approached anyone when in this state- too lost in his own rage and despair to register the horror of those passing by him - he was truly terrifying. My co-workers and I talked about the Quarter Man - pitied him, wondered a little about him, occasionally made a crass joke about him. But mostly we distanced ourself from the Quarter Man. His plight could never be our plight. It was unthinkable to us that we could ever end up like him.
I'm sure Chicago has homeless people who are a lot like the Quarter Man- in fact, I've seen a few of them in the Loop over the years. But the thing that struck me most about the people I have served with the Night Ministry is that they are largely indistinguishable from the other people hurrying along the city sidewalks - those heading to jobs and homes and family, rather than to a handout of food and water and a (very possibly futile) search for a warm place to spend the night. They are very much like you and me. I am a fiercely independent person myself - reluctant to ask for help or admit my need. Seeing these people line up for sandwiches, and load bags with extra food to make it through the weekend, humbled me beyond words.
It easy to pretend that the Quarter Man is not me and could never be me. But what about those adorable teenage girls in the too-big fleece hoodies? Or the man to whom I served lemonade - the articulate, well-read man who graduated from the same university that I did? It's a lot harder to separate myself from them. We're all part of the same family, really. And if we are following Jesus, then it's our job to take care of our human family, while realizing that we, too, may be the one in need of help next time. And there should be no loss of dignity in needing or asking for help.
It was cold Friday night, and I was tired. But I was lucky. When the night was over and the sandwiches and socks had all been passed out, I got to ride back to the suburbs in a heated car. I got to go home - my own home -and put on my warm, fuzzy socks, crawl under a warm afghan, eat leftover spaghetti and watch a late movie on my 27-inch TV.
But I don't know where those men and women and young people I met ended up on Friday night. I don't know how or if they kept warm. Because I learned these startling statistics during my volunteer orientation:
1. The average age of a homeless person in Chicago? Nine years old.
2. The number of homeless people in Chicago? 15,000.
3. The number of beds available in shelters for Chicago's homeless youth? There is an unconfirmed maximum of 100 beds available nightly - the cofirmable number is 40. (The Night Ministry provides 16 of these.)
With such a staggering number of people in need, it is futile for a group like the Night Ministry to try to find everyone a bed. But what they can - and do - provide is a place to come for food, fellowship and medical care. And I'm very honored to have been part of their services for a couple of nights.
To find out more about Night Ministry, check out their website: http://www.thenightministry.org/home.htm