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Marty RogersAugust 08, 2022
Photo by Ev on Unsplash

The students in Ms. Rivera’s sixth-grade class at Immaculate Conception Grammar School listened to her story about how she volunteered on a “midnight run” for the homeless when she was in college. One student asked, “Ms. Rivera, how can we help the homeless people we see in our neighborhood?” The question did not die there. It opened up a dialogue with the school’s principal, Sister Patrice, and a handful of school and community members—including my wife and me, both members of the parish team that organizes an annual Thanksgiving dinner for senior citizens and community members in need.

From there the “Hope Walks” were born. About 15 students volunteered, collected money in class and selected a date to walk. They made 40 peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and bought two cases of water; Sister Patrice donated 48 candy bars. In the fall of 2017 at 5 p.m., they walked from their school to the local main street two blocks away. For the next 90 minutes, they stopped to meet and greet every person who looked to be in need. They began with introductions and asked if the person would like a sandwich, a drink and a chocolate bar. Who could say no? Conversations flowed, and before parting the students asked: “Can we say a prayer together?” Almost everyone said yes, and the Hope Walks became a regular event. These street corner prayers are now a familiar sight in the neighborhood.

Conversations flowed, and before parting the students asked: “Can we say a prayer together?” Almost everyone said yes. These street corner prayers are now a familiar sight in the neighborhood.

In March 2020, when Covid-19 closed the schools, churches and almost every shop, it also closed the shelters for people who were homeless. The busy streets were ghost towns except for an exploding population of people who had nowhere to go. The sixth grader’s question—How can we help?—was still alive in Sister Patrice and a handful of parish members. So the Hope Walks were resurrected, this time taking place once a week with 20 sandwiches. Because of the overwhelming need of people on the streets, volunteers began going out three days a week, bringing more meals.

As spring became summer and then fall, the simple meals were often placed in raw, bare hands. The word went out, and soon donated gloves, scarves, socks and hats (homemade by quarantining sisters) were also handed out. As fall turned hard into winter, even more supplies were needed. The local firehouse found a bakery to donate fresh Italian bread once a week. As the needs grew, the generosity of folks grew. The students and faculty of the nearby Cristo Rey High School adopted Fridays as their service walk day and brought an amazing youthful spirit and energy to the neighborhood walks.

Word spread through personal contacts and friendships. Retired teachers, musicians, I.T. workers, mechanics, parents, firefighters and even folks who at some point in their life knew what it was like to be homeless all volunteered.

The walks continue to this day, and each one is unique. They require leaving familiar territory and entering a space where conversation, food, companionship and shared prayer is a very big deal. It is a space and time where basic respect, dignity and love grow very quickly, a place where Jesus frequents and, in some cases, lives 24 hours a day.

It was an amazing question the student asked in 2017 and remains so today. “Ms. Rivera, what can we do about the people who are homeless in our neighborhood?”

Today, the Hope Walks continue thanks to grass-roots donations, prayers and weekly work of volunteers. From day one, the walk was grounded in Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.” Jesus tells us: You saw me and met me in my need. You met me there. You did it to me. To date, over 100 teenagers and adults have made a Hope Walk. But it is not about statistics or numbers. Our guests are people first, not some vague collection known as “the homeless.” They are our neighbors.

Yes, some live with mental illness or addictions and are invisible to the daily throng that walks past and around them every day. Some tell us tales of job loss, rent issues and abuse in the home. We do not preach or lecture. We are present, and we try to listen more than we talk. Sometimes we find ourselves singing “Happy Birthday,” “Silent Night” or a Motown tune. We laugh and joke. We hear about people’s hopes, struggles, losses and life’s stories. Many of our guests share advice and life experience with us, and they especially love to talk to the students. Since we have learned each other’s names, these sisters and brothers are not invisible. We insist that we do not bring Christ to our neighbors but catch up with Christ beside our neighbors.

After each walk, we gather to talk about what just happened. We share gratitude, sadness, hope and helplessness. We talk about supplies for the next walk. We pray one more time together and hug each other goodbye. The walks can be unsettling, exposing and painful as well as life-giving and life-affirming. As one of our students once said, “It feels like food for our souls.”

There is no formula to charity, companionship or Matthew 25. Have fun, have love, take a leap

It was an amazing question the student asked in 2017 and remains so today. “Ms. Rivera, what can we do about the people who are homeless in our neighborhood?”

The question is really an invitation. It is a personal invitation, and it waits patiently for any form of response. If you are so moved, look around. Is there a main street near your home? Is there a park or row of stores or back alleys that are calling out? Or do you know of “that” part of town where one should not tread? It really is pretty simple. Get some like-hearted people of faith. Have a conversation.

Get some food, drinks and socks. Walk in teams always. Go where you are a little scared to walk alone. Say hello to folks. Learn names and give stuff away. Pray your fears and troubles together, out loud or in silence. Don’t forget to smile and laugh. A long time ago, that ragged Jesus had similar journeys with his companions of all ages and sizes and genders.

Walk once a year, walk once a month, walk on holy days. There is no formula to charity, companionship or Matthew 25. Have fun, have love, take a leap. And never forget, “Whatever you did for the least of my people, you did it for me.”

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