At Christmas time so many people are moved with compassion to volunteer. They come to help others but often by the end of the meal I hear them say, “I got more out of volunteering than the guests received tonight!” I know from experience that what may seem like a passing comment is actually a sign of God’s presence. So, I listen in! Often, in moments like these a heartfelt connection is being made between the person who is serving and the people who are being served. This is a connection that can be kindled and can grow with time. Youth volunteers, in moments like these often make heartfelt connections that impact the course of their lives: to believe, to love, to let down defenses, to become a neighbor to someone in need. I want to share a story from my own life that illustrates the point.
I was only seventeen when I left Kansas City one Fall bound for Reynosa, Mexico. I was one of twenty rowdy teenagers traveling in a conversion van loaded with plywood, tools and song books. We were going to Reynosa to build homes for the homeless. Our work site for the next five days would be a dry lake bed that had been turned into a city trash dump. This pile of decaying waste, just across the border from San Antonio TX, served as a squatters camp for the most vulnerable of this little barrio.
Jose and his family lived close to the edge of the dump. He worked odd jobs and his family picked through the trash for recyclables to sell or reuse. They had just enough money to survive but not enough to afford proper shelter. Every night the family of nine crammed into an immobile, beige and rust colored station wagon to sleep. I worked with my friends to build a “house” for Jose’s family. In reality it was little more than the shed my parents used for storing their lawnmower. I felt so good about how we were helping Jose’s family and my part in it. Truth be told however, I had not actually spoken with Jose and I only knew a sketch of his life story from our group leaders. The distance dividing my life from his was vast. In spite of my sincere desire to help and be really present, I realized I didn’t have a heartfelt connection with Jose or his family.
On our final day in Reynosa, as the last shingle was nailed down on Jose’s new roof, he surprised us by preparing a special meal. On metal folding tables, surrounded by multi-colored plastic chairs, was a spread of food. To us twenty teenagers it seemed like a spread intended for the show Bizarre Foods. There were meats of unknown origin sitting in uncovered dishes in the hot sun. There were sugar cane coca colas in glass bottles, boiled cactus and all manner of other supposedly edible things. Honestly, I was afraid to eat most of it and I wasn’t the only one! Our group leader who sensed a rapidly approaching and, potentially disastrous moment, whispered in English, “You are all going to eat everything on that table and smile! This meal represents months of wages for Jose and his family. They want to eat with you to thank you.” We blessed the food and I cautiously nibbled my first bit of cooked cactus. Soon I was gobbling up the scrumptiously authentic Mexican feast!
As we broke tortillas together and shared a bottle of soda, I felt God’s presence. I realized at that meal there were no longer rich volunteers and a homeless family, we were simply friends breaking bread and giving thanks. Right then my relationship with Jose and my understanding of his “needs” and my role in “helping” radically shifted into proper alignment. As we finished supper and prepared to leave, I was unexpectedly moved to tears and my chest ached hard. I had made the heartfelt connection with Jose that was initially missing between us. I know I received more from Jose and his family than they received from me! I am forever indebted to them.
Do you remember a time when you made a mutual heartfelt connection when serving someone in need? I would love to hear about it. Share your experiences in the comment below.
Article by Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director of Reconciliation Services.