My summer ministry was a street ministry through St. Aloysius Neighborhood Services in downtown Detroit. Through this ministry we provided drinks, sandwiches, and sometimes articles of clothing to men and women we saw on the streets and in parks nearly every Saturday morning. I chose this ministry because I thought it would provide the greatest opportunity to have the Holy Spirit work through me, as it was something I had never done before and would have me traveling in parts of the city I’d never ventured into.
The typical Saturday started at 7:30 in the morning and ended anytime between 10:30 and 11:00. I and several other volunteers provisioned the church van with several gallons of coffee, and depending on the weather, Gatorade or hot chocolate. We also loaded large bins of sandwiches made earlier in the week by other volunteers. Sandwiches were typically bologna and cheese or peanut butter and jelly on white or wheat bread. At times we might also have cookies or bags of chips. On rare occasions we might have socks or underwear to pass out along with the food and drinks. After the van was loaded, but before we started out on the road, if Jennifer was there, she would make sure all the volunteers held hands and we would pray for guidance and protection. On Saturdays when Jennifer was not there, no one, including myself regrettably, led a prayer. If I were to ever do this again, or something similar, I would make sure we prayed before going out, as well as ask for a blessing over the food we were serving.
While there was no set route, we frequently stopped by the Mariners’ Church, near the entrance of the Windsor Tunnel, the Rosa Parks Transit Center, Cass Park, across from the Masonic Temple Theater, Mariners Inn (an addiction recovery facility), Manna Community Meals, kitty corner from where Tiger Stadium used to stand, and the NSO – Neighborhood Service Organization – on 3rd Avenue. There were usually ten to 20 to 30 or more people at these different locations. If we happened to see someone along the road, or in an alley, we would stop and offer that individual something to eat and drink.
Encounters with the people on the street could be humbling or challenging. One Saturday we had men’s socks to give out along with food. It was truly humbling to see how appreciative the men were just to get a new pair of socks. It made me realize that something I take for granted, the ability to clean my clothes, could be completely unavailable to these men and women. There were other instances where the individual we were speaking with and providing them with food and a drink was so unclean that they smelled. Many times I said a quiet prayer asking for the strength to carry on, and to remember, as soiled as the person might be, they too were part of the Body of Christ. Other individuals were challenging in that there was a sense of entitlement to what we were giving out – a sense that was conveyed when they became specific in what they wanted in the way of sandwiches or chips or a drink. These encounters were typically the exception, rather than the norm.
The drive home was always surreal for me. I spent the 30 minutes it took from downtown out to Farmington Hills in quiet reflection, in part, reflecting on the culture change between where I had been serving and where I was going. Many times the John Bradford quote, “There but for the grace of God go I,” came to mind. The experience made me realize the small things in life that I take for granted, and the many blessing for which I should thank God. The ministry experience also made me think about what might be done to make a more permanent change in the lives of some of these people living on the street. I also found myself reflecting on what Jesus said in Matthew 25:35-40 with regard to clothing and feeding him through our least brothers, and what St. Paul wrote in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 regarding anyone who doesn’t work should not eat.
In closing, while circumstances and the ministry work itself didn’t lend itself to 40 hours, the time spent was invaluable. It provided me with many opportunities for the Holy Spirit to work through me through up-close exposure to parts of our community that previously I would only hear about and see in the news or on TV, where the experiences are sanitized and distant. The work gave me experience that will allow me to speak the homeless, or those suffering with addictions, more comfortably, with more compassion and empathy in the future.