Lessons From the Streets

A Student’s Ministry to the Homeless Irreversibly Changes Her Perspective

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This is a contribution from Makena Clawson, a student at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

* * *

You’ll have air-conditioning. You won’t have to wake up at 6:10 a.m. You’ll have more than those few, smelly pairs of shoes. You will have time to yourself again.

These thoughts ran through my head as I fell asleep on my last night of missionary service with the Denver-based program Christ in the City.

The final thought?

Ha! It doesn’t even matter, I would give up so much more just to stay.

For the past month, God trusted me enough to let me serve as his missionary with nine others who, like me, decided to use part of our summer for this work. We joined with 14 other missionaries giving a full year. Most of us were in our early to mid-20s.

Christ in the City started just three years ago, in 2010, when Dr. Jonathan Reyes, past president of Catholic Charities, teamed up with Yvonne Noggle, the program’s current director. It is now affiliated with the Christian Life Movement, and their consecrated lay women and men provide spiritual formation for the missionaries. Generous donors give most of the funding, and the missionaries trust in God’s providence for what they need. He always comes through, even sometimes in the form of 10 pints of ice cream from the food bank.

The mission of Christ in the City is to love those Christ speaks about in Matthew 25:40, where he says, «As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it for me.» The outreach spreads from the pre-born to those nearing the end of life, but with a special focus on those experiencing homelessness. 

This is what shattered my comfort zone the most. It’s not normal or common to introduce yourself to someone on the street and ask if you can share his bench. But after meeting just a few new friends on the streets (once you swap life stories, struggles, hopes and dreams I think you can use the term ‘friends’), I found that I craved this time and was never satisfied when I had to leave. 

Sure there were times when the conversation got tough because people didn’t want to talk, it was awkward, or even a fight was breaking out 10 feet away, but it didn’t matter. If this person was really Christ who was hungry or thirsty, how could I not stop for just a moment? 

On one occasion, I worked up the courage to ask a man I had just met, «Are you happy?» Instead of the angry glare I was expecting, he became a little choked up and almost with a laugh said, «No.» 

«When was the last time you were happy?» I said. 

He said he didn’t want to talk about it, but that he hadn’t been happy since he left his family after he began shooting up. He explained how he had tried it once out of curiosity and that was all it took to take him from life with his family to life on the streets and near-death experiences after overdoses. 

I felt powerless leaving my new friend and wanted just a few more minutes with him, even though I realized I couldn’t really do anything to change his situation, his homelessness, his addiction, his unhappiness. But as I left, a certain look in his eyes made it all worth it. 

I can tell you have love in your heart, he said. Love he hadn’t seen in who knows how long.

God blessed me later that week with getting to see him while we were both crossing the street. We didn’t have time to talk long, but the smile and hello we exchanged seemed they belonged more to longtime friends than two unlikely confidantes like us.

These men and women I met were not just hungry or thirsty for the lunch we could give them, but for spiritual nourishment.

Most of the time I was blown away by those I met on the streets — by their faith, their gratitude, their kindness. One longtime friend of the missionaries bikes 20 minutes during the week to meet us for 7 a.m. daily Mass. I don’t know if he’s ever missed a weekly lunch. 

But why? Because the missionaries are his friends. Because he can laugh and joke with us. Because he sees love.

Sure, he would tell you he still has work to do in how much he drinks, but this friend has come a long way. He moved in with family and is off the streets. Sometimes I forget he used to be homeless and just think of him as an honorary missionary. He is so quick to help with whatever we need — like moving our tents and tables to the car — and his kindness shows when he asks about how my mom is doing. 

Many of the conversations with our friends end in hugs, another surprise at how my comfort zone had grown. After talking to a tough-looking man who didn’t say too much, he leaned in for a hug, making me realize I had more of an impact than I thought, and we planned to see each other later that week. 

What did I say that had an impact on these people? Nothing. I just let them talk and share their stories while I listened.

When everyone else (including me in the past) looks down when passing someone on the street, the missionaries were there to give them a little of their dignity back. Just a conversation was all we had, maybe sometimes a glass of cool lemonade or a sandwich. We were open with our faith if it came up, and we had friends that joined us for Mass, but if it wasn’t the time for that conversation, that was all right too. 

While many of these men and women had made mistakes or were battling an addiction of some kind, this didn’t define them. They had been mothers, fathers, brothers, or sisters in average families like mine or yours until one stroke of bad luck or one choice changed everything. But when I looked a little closer, I could still see the real them — the proud father, the little girl who missed her family, the wife who loved her husband. We were there to bring out this reality.

So why was it so hard to leave? Because it meant leaving my friends on the street. I hadn’t really served them; they were the ones who changed my life, who taught me lessons on how to love. And of course the missionaries. How do you live, serve, and have experiences that touch your heart together and not grow close?

It took me a month, but I think I caught a glimmer of an answer to the question people had been asking me since I arrived: «Why did Christ bring you here?» Simple: to learn how to love.

At the end of my time, a priest told me (without knowing it was my last day): «The mission is Christ.» 

For those of us who aren’t on the streets as missionaries and have little contact with the poor and in need, we are still called to be missionaries. We are called to bring Christ to every corner of our lives. Maybe you’re an executive working in a corporate office — the mission is Christ. Maybe you’re a mother staying at home — the mission is Christ. Maybe you’re a student in a secular public university — the mission is Christ. 

And unless He tells us otherwise, the mission is where we already are. Sometimes it’s easier for me to love those on the streets than those I live with everyday. But this is where it all starts. 

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