We Give Them Food, And A Name
We Give Them Food, And A Name
February 19, 2019
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat…truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.”
Matthew 25:35a, 40
Like most Outdoor Church volunteers, I joined the sandwich ministry because someone asked me. In 2009, Harvard-Epworth’s divinity-school intern Jessica Strysko said she was she was forming a team at Jed’s request, to go on monthly sandwich handouts in Cambridge. She said we would go out every third Saturday, because soup kitchens and food pantries were closed over the weekend, so most of the homeless were going hungry. Other groups would go out the other Saturdays.
As a newspaper reporter, I had written stories about the guests in homeless shelters, and formerly homeless men and women who had taken a step back from the street to stable housing. Otherwise, my contact with the homeless was much the same as anyone else’s -– I saw them here and there, and sometimes gave them a dollar. But I didn’t think twice about saying yes to Jessica’s invitation.
We went out on our first handout a couple of weeks later, two of us to Harvard Square and two to Central Square. I went with Jessica to Harvard Square. The first time I offered a sandwich to a homeless man, and he took it, the noise and shopping traffic of the square faded, like a dissolve scene in a movie. He and the other street folks we encountered were in close focus, and all the shoppers and passersby were in the background. The calling had found me.
Since then we’ve made our rounds in the rain, snow and heat. We’ve gone out a few Thanksgivings and Christmases too, and we’ve never missed a Saturday. Harvard-Epworth’s team has changed over the years, except for a couple of us, and the people we see have changed as well.
Ray, who’s always grateful for whatever we offer, migrated from Harvard to Central months ago. Ethan still claims his spot outside the Harvard Book Store, though he talks about moving to California. Marty, who’s an Army veteran, has survived near-lethal alcohol and drug addictions, and is clean and healthy for now. Sarah sits just outside the Harvard Square T entrance, often with a Dunkin Donuts coffee.
A young man who called himself Sunshine has come and gone, along with scores of others, to who knows where. Billy the traffic-light panhandler died from a heart attack. Colleen arrived young several years ago, aged quickly, and died from a heroin overdose. If we can, we attend the memorial services of those who have died. The services are important to the homeless, so they’re important to us, too.
Every month we offer the sandwiches that Harvard-Epworth members prepare, along with bottled water and juice -- and sometimes brownies or cookies, a treat they all enjoy. Most of the homeless prefer the meat sandwiches, and we offer egg salad when we can, for the vegetarians. Few ask for peanut butter and jelly. When we make our rounds we ask everyone their name, how they’re doing, and if they have a place to stay. Most sleep rough, in out-of-the-way corners where they won’t be noticed, assaulted or robbed.
Few share much about their life, but they all like it that we ask their name, and speak to them by name the next time we see them. When we do that, we let them know they’re people the same as us, not objects on the sidewalk. That seems to mean as much as the food we provide, though their hunger is the first thing, as Jesus teaches in Matthew 25.
I come away from every handout feeling lifted – not from self-satisfaction, but from what happens between the homeless and us on the walk-arounds. When we go to them, we step into their home, across an invisible line that’s easy for any of us to draw. As I’ve said to Jed and Pat and Tom, I feel like I’m living out my faith more on the handouts than just about anything else I do.
When the next third Saturday comes around, our team will gather in the church’s basement kitchen, and put the sandwiches and drinks into two wheeled coolers. Outside we’ll join hands for a brief prayer, and set out to Harvard and Central, to see who’s there that day. There are always new people to meet, but I always look for those we know, to be sure they’re safe -- and alive.