It is difficult to write a report on outreach activities of any parish, for the fear of coming across as bragging, and this is not my intent. If anything, it is done in obedience to our Bishop, who required it, and with prayer that it will be helpful to others, who might want to initiate or expand their own outreach ministries and programs, in the parishes of our diocese.
In order to make this article somewhat inspirational I want to share a true story, which I believe sets the right perspective on outreach ministry.
It happened one June evening – The kids and I just sat down to eat dinner. The girls insisted on lighting some candles, the little flames happily danced around in the breeze, making our kitchen cozy and warm. There was an air of growing anticipation because this was the last week of school. The kids excitedly interrupted each other as they discussed summer plans. I watched this usual mealtime chaos with the sense of tranquility and peace.
Our newly adopted children were adjusting very well to their new life in US. And our biological children were starting to accept the four new additions to the family. As for me, I considered myself beyond fortunate to be able to stay home and guide this delicate process.
We have been blessed with a wonderful church family, great friends and a comfortable home. True, we weren’t rich, but we lacked nothing, either. Life was good!
Over the loud chatter I heard the doorbell. The younger children jumped up from the table and ran to the door, laughing and pushing each other out of the way, to see who could get there first. The front door swung open and almost immediately it was forcefully shut with the loud bang. The runaways piled back into the kitchen looking taken aback and scared. As I got up, I scolded them for being rude and opened the door.
There he stood – his hair greasy and matted, his face dirty and unshaven. He wore an oversized shirt and a pair of stained jeans. But he spoke in a quiet and gentle voice that didn’t match his general appearance. He simply said: ”Ma’am, could you please give me some food?” I left him standing on our front porch and ran back into the kitchen. There I rummaged through my cupboards and half-heartedly gathered some food. I was annoyed at the intruder who interrupted our peaceful meal, and I wanted him gone.
As I was putting the food into plastic bags, a hardly audible voice within me said: “You should ask him what food he likes.” But I didn’t. I quickly handed him the bags and turned to go. He said: “God Bless you,” and left.
He came again, looking more disheveled than the first time, and there was a strong stench coming from his direction. His skin was sunken and tight against his cheekbones. This time around, I took more care in preparing his food packages. I put in there things that I would have enjoyed eating myself. He received the food with immense gratitude, a big smile spread over his face. As he was about to go, a little voice inside me said: “Ask him if he needs any clean clothes?” But I didn’t.
By now school was out and with this came the glorious freedom of summer. The children were spending most of the time outside. Our playground in the backyard was constantly transformed from a medieval castle attacked by fierce dragons, to a ship braving the storms at sea. Truly, a child’s imagination is boundless! As the boys were building roads in the sandbox and the girls were having a pretend picnic for their dolls, one of them yelled: “Mommy, Mommy, the poor man is back!” I was glad that gone was the original apprehension and fear. I gathered the usual packages and handed them over. He just stood there reluctant to leave. Then, very shyly he asked: “Ma’am, I have a great favor to ask. Could you please give me a Bible?” I led him into my husband’s office, where one entire shelf was dedicated to prayer books and Bibles. “Which one do you want?” I asked. He picked out a King James Version, written in a larger print. Then he turned to go. The little voice nagged: “Ask him if there is anything else you could do for him?” – But I didn’t.
And then came the rains. That year it rained for two weeks straight. The river looked angry and swollen. Every time the kids and I drove over the bridge, we watched the rising waters. The river went over the banks and started to flood the surrounding areas.
Towards the end of the second week our visitor came again. His clothes were damp and caked with mud. I led him straight into the kitchen, where I got his food packages together. As I was putting spaghetti into one of the bags it dawned on me to ask: “Do you have a pot to boil some pasta?” He did not answer for a very long time. I looked up and saw his pained expression, his eyes pierced me right through. He took a very deep breath and very quietly said: “Ma’am, I have no pot or stove or roof over my head. I live under the Bridge.” I was speechless as it took me a while to process these words. This time, a very bold strong voice from within said: “Invite him over for dinner, offer him to take a shower, and give him some clean clothes. Then help him get into a homeless shelter.” But – I didn’t.
He turned to go and with the smile on his face and said: “By the way, my name is Caleb.” He was gone before I came out of my trance. I never saw him again.
As I lay in bed that night, listening to the rain pounding on the roof, I thought about Caleb. I was ashamed of my inability to reach out and make a real difference. I was too busy and wrapped up in my own life to go an extra mile. I neglected to do the most important thing of all – see Christ in this destitute man, and live out the Gospel parable of Great Judgment (Mt. 25). My thoughts turned to all poor, hungry, and homeless. How was it not to have a roof over your head and be at the mercy of elements? How was it to wake up each morning feeling hungry and not knowing where to get your next meal? How was it to look into the face of your dying child because you were not able to provide? And finally, how was it to be numb with grief at the sight of a premature death? A death quite easily prevented by extension of human kindness and generosity?
Almost two years have gone by since I first met Caleb. He taught me many valuable lessons that I will never forget. Since then our parish has opened a food pantry. For people who know hunger intimately, our food pantry is a lifeline.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that this unfortunate section of the population finds themselves in this sad predicament because of their own fault. People blame bad decisions, laziness, and the welfare environment as being part of this problem. This might be partly true, but I will let God be the judge of that. After all, Christ didn’t put any conditions on taking care of the needy. He simply said – feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, dress the naked.
We may not be able to fix world suffering singlehandedly, but we could reach out to the people within our reach. Dramatic change is accumulation of multiple acts of human kindness.
As a parish, we prepare and distribute Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter food baskets, give away over 1,500 lbs of potatoes and apples to the needy in the community, we have cooked, deboned, distributed, and served over ton and a half (3,000 lbs) of turkeys between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In cooperation with the local American Legion we served over 3.000 dinners on Thanksgiving Day. We collect clothes for the children of St. Tikhon’s Seminary students and gift cards for the kids, for Christmas. Our Sunday School collected funds for Haiti and made hundreds of care packages for our troops.
Our little food pantry, through the tireless efforts of Fr. Tim Holowatch, Fr. Deacon John Bohush, R Club Chapter, numerous volunteers, and government agencies contacts, distributes between $75.000 and $100.000 a year, in foods for the needy in surrounding area. All this takes a lot of work and puts a lot of strain on the parish. And we are grateful to our parish council and its president Norm Cross for sharing this vision of outreach and ministry, and learning to be Christians in deeds as well as in words.
Christ commanded us to “love one another as He has loved us first”. We strive to live this commandment in our daily lives as a parish family.
I still think of Caleb – Was it Him?
SS. Peter and Paul Church, Endicott, NY