Helping Hands is a PazNaz ministry that provides food and clothing for an average of 80 families each Wednesday, including 12 homeless friends. Cathy VanderLaan shares her experiences volunteering with Helping Hands:
I first met John (not his real name), one of our homeless friends, a couple of years ago when I started working at Helping Hands. I had noticed that some people have a hard time dealing with the homeless, but I don’t have this problem, so I found myself volunteering to work with them.
When I introduced myself to John, I said, “Hi, I’m Cathy. I’m taking over Vivian’s job and I’ll be working with our homeless friends. I’d like to get to know you.” He looked down and didn’t make eye contact. Right away that drew me in. I saw it as a challenge and knew it was going to be my job to seek John out and establish a friendship with him. He sat alone, didn’t talk to anyone, and didn’t interact with others.
John is basically shy, but I also think he might have some social issues, maybe some hurt in his past. Perhaps he’s just a loner; I’m not sure. I sometimes see him walking around Pasadena, and when I do, I stop and say “hi.” I also tell him I hope to see him at Helping Hands. It took me a couple of tries to break through his reluctance to interact with me. I remember telling him that we would eventually be friends, that it might take a month or six months or two years, but I would wear him down and we would speak to each other and be friends. He shook his head no without making eye contact. That was two years ago and, slowly over time, as I would walk him down to the clothing room or hand him his grocery bag, I would ask how he was doing or if he was staying safe. When it rained I would ask if he needed an extra blanket or if he had found shelter. Over time he started answering with more than simple yes or no answers. It has taken two years, but now we occasionally have short conversations, and he smiles at me when he sees me at Church in the Park.
Encounters with our homeless friends are some of God’s ways of reminding me to feed and take care of his sheep. Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, just feed one.” I can’t feed the world, but I can assist the folks that show up at Helping Hands by helping to provide food, blankets, basic toiletries, and a smile.
It’s unclear why John is homeless. I don’t think it’s an addiction issue, but maybe he’s a vet with PTSD or suffers from some physiological issues. He’s always polite and works hard to maintain good hygiene, taking the opportunity to clean up at church when he can. Our friendship is not yet at the point where I can ask him about his story, but I hope someday to reach that point. I would love to know how I can help him and others get off the street and into a home. This is our job; this is what Jesus calls us to do. Jesus gives us a beautiful example by washing his disciples’ feet and providing food for the masses. I believe it is also our calling to meet the basic needs of God’s children, providing them with food to eat, clothes to wear, and a place to lay their heads. We are family – they are our brothers and sisters.
When I see John, I’m reminded that he’s someone’s brother or son or father. He has a mother somewhere. As a mother myself, I wonder if his mother is missing him or worried about him. If my child were hurting or in trouble, I would certainly want someone to see my child and help him. I would want anyone who possibly could to provide food, clothing, and shelter for my son if he needed it. I get very emotional about this subject. The homeless people we serve are someone’s children. They once had homes, food, clothing, and shelter. What happened to cause them to be lost? How did we fail them? How can we best step in and help them? Why do they choose to live on the street?
Another friend, Jose (also not his real name), is very sweet and polite and comes to Helping Hands two or three times a month. One Wednesday, I knew rain was in the forecast and I asked if he had shelter or if he needed an extra blanket. He shared that he had permission from a local church to sleep in their doorway, and he accepted an extra blanket. It seemed like an insignificant gesture at the time, but he thanked me for thinking about him. We frequently worry about our pets and plants when the weather turns cold, but who is worried about John and Jose? It blows my mind that we pass people daily without a thought for their basic needs.
We probably see people around us every day who are only one pay check away from being on the street. I would venture to say that many people in our congregation know someone who is barely hanging on. After volunteering at Helping Hands, I have a much better understanding of how people end up needing help. There are many factors that push people into desperate situations through no fault of their own: job loss, divorce, poor coping skills, medical issues, mental health problems, and emotional crises. The list goes on.
A passage of scripture in Matthew 25 has always been a reminder to me that when I care for others, I care for Jesus and I care for his family. Encounters with our homeless friends are some of God’s ways of reminding me to feed and take care of his sheep. Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, just feed one.” I can’t feed the world, but I can assist the folks that show up at Helping Hands by helping to provide food, blankets, basic toiletries, and a smile. I would also love to see a place for the homeless to take showers and do their laundry. It’s important for people to feel clean and good about themselves. Until we can figure out how to do that, I’m happy to hand out food and hugs.
– Cathy VanderLaan
“‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
– Matthew 25:35-39
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