The Justice & Outreach Year (J.O.Y.) of Formation program is one that continues to awaken and surprise. We are given ten weekends to learn about and explore various social justice issues during which participants are offered the opportunity to consider how Catholic Social Teaching and our baptismal call to discipleship are connected to each issue. There is also an invitation to discern how we are all individually called by God to respond to the needs of others. Each participant enters the weekend with an open heart and a deep desire to be of service. Often, through these encounters, we find ourselves humbled, our perspectives and worldviews broadened and our hearts broken open just a little bit wider. This was the case this past December when we focused our attention on the issues of poverty in our city.
There’s something about poverty that can cast a shadow of trepidation and an element of fear when looked at up close. Learning about poverty, listening to facts and statistics across a boardroom table, while a necessary and important part of the dialogue, can restricts understanding to a sanitized and one-dimensional tableau. It is far riskier to come face-to-face with the people who live and wrestle with the effects of poverty on a day-to-day basis. Seeing, hearing, smelling and touching poverty begs a vulnerability that most of us tend to shy away from, myself included. And yet, it is here, within this place of discomfort and vulnerability, that Jesus calls to us. The J.O.Y. program was designed to invite us precisely into this space of discomfort so that we could push past our well-developed biases and begin to see brokenness with resurrection eyes. Nevertheless, it was with nervous apprehension that our J.O.Y. community went to visit The Lighthouse, a non-profit organization that offers emergency shelter, supportive living and affordable housing for men, women and families in Saskatoon.
We had each driven by this agency numerous times before – maybe we’d hurried past as we went to catch a movie at the theatre on the opposite corner or edged by it on our way to dinner somewhere downtown. We all had a peripheral awareness of the former hotel that now played host to many of Saskatoon’s marginalized but few of us had ever been inside. Perhaps, like me, some of us had made a deliberate detour to avoid the man huddled in the corner to keep warm or avoided eye-contact with the panhandler asking for spare change. By walking directly into The Lighthouse, we were being asked to confront those times when we had participated in the denial of “the least of these” - don’t look and it’s not there, don’t engage and they don’t exist.
Entering the foyer, we huddled together unsure of our surrounding - eyes wide, senses pricked to the sounds, smells and sights around us - waiting for instruction. Our main job that afternoon was to trim the main hall with Christmas decorations. Eager to keep busy, we dutifully got started. We hauled large Tupperware containers of garland and ornaments into the main gathering areas and began to set up trees in and amongst the crowd of people who called The Lighthouse home. The shelter’s clientele is diverse; men and women of varying ages, races and abilities lounged and visited with one another, sharing a laugh or two while we skirted around them trying to make ourselves useful. The first half hour was an awkward dance of us versus them as we considered each other with tentative smiles, keeping an acceptable distance.
This could have been the extent of our involvement; a safe and non-threatening experience that demanded nothing of us except our time. But it wasn’t. One-by-one, in a brave offering of friendship, some of the clients began to initiate conversation. Many shared their story with us; we learned of one man’s interest in music and his ability to play the piano, another told us about how he had struggled with his health – showing us the surgical marks left on his body. One woman told us about how much she loved the community at the Lighthouse – it was her extended family, while a young man talked about how he had become homeless in his early teens and had not been able to undo the ramifications of that. Some of us were given a lesson in Tai Chi as someone else confided that this would be the first time they had ever decorated a Christmas tree. We found ourselves entering easy conversation and being invited into relationship. We were offered the gift of their vulnerability and being asked, in turn, to see these men and women as friends who had a story to tell.
As part of our visit we received a tour, heard the mission of the Lighthouse and learned about the issue of poverty as it is experienced by so many in Saskatoon – but, as always, it was the interaction with people that became the true gift of that day. Biases began to be revealed for what they were, assumptions were called into question, perspectives were invited to be changed and hearts were unavoidably opened. Because of our experience through the J.O.Y. program, we were awakened to the unmistakable fingerprint of friendship, love and humanity present in the people who utilize the resources at The Lighthouse. We discovered that the divide between us and those who suffer poverty is much less wide than we would like to think and, thus our service became one of mutuality - recognizing and affirming the dignity of one another and walking together in our vulnerability and brokenness without averting our eyes.