A DIFFERENT CHRISTMAS: THE REAL JOY OF GIVING
I became aware of the possibility of having a very different Christmas in the U.S when I spotted a blog just days after Thanksgiving that featured five individuals, wearing white aprons and broad smiles, who had just served Thanksgiving dinner to some of Chicago’s homeless through Catholic Charities Chicago.
I wrote the blog author, congratulating him and saying that was something I would love to do. He wrote back and, with a lot of exclamation marks, said they would be doing it again on Christmas Day, that I was most welcome to join the volunteers and he then told me how and where to participate!
And so my Christmas Day 2017 began.
Well, Christmas Day really began, of course with Mass at one of my favorite churches in America, Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. The presider at the 9:30 Mass – though I did not know this when I decided on that Mass – was Msgr. Michael Boland, head of Catholic Charities in Chicago and a long time friend. Here are a few photos I took before and after Mass.
The “Resurrection Cross”
I returned briefly to my hotel after Mass to pick up some special items I had brought for the occasion, including several hundred holy cards that featured a picture of Pope Francis and some of his words that I wanted to leave with the homeless.
When I arrived at the CC office on LaSalle street shortly after 11, I was surprised and delighted to note the large number of volunteers, especially because it was Christmas and also because there seemed to be quite a number of families. You somehow picture families at home, sharing breakfast, opening gifts, kids playing with new toys, etc.
The volunteers all lined up to receive a white plastic apron and pair of plastic gloves. We were ushered into the dining room where, on one side round tables of ten were set for over 100 people and, on the other side, were long tables with abundant servings of many, many kinds of foods.
Each volunteer had a specific assignment. Those with more experience were table captains and they directed each of us carrying a tray to those tables where people had yet to be served. Each volunteer who was to serve food received a tray with two plates on it, and each plate was filled to overflowing by the volunteers serving behind the food stations.
Smaller tables were set up with desserts and beverages – it was almost exclusively the turf of the younger family members!
I joined what I called “the dessert brigade” where each of us was given a plate with several desserts and one soft drink. We followed those with the dinner plates to the tables, and returned to our stations to repeat the same process. Yet others were assigned to fill water glasses and coffee cups.
Msgr. Boland was present to the very end, even when the first group of homeless had finished dinner and those waiting to eat were ushered into the dining room – a festively decorated room, I might add.
We served several hundred people by the end of the lunchtime, and I have to say it was such a heartening experience for so many reasons. I especially loved the idea that we were serving people at tables, not making them stand in a long buffet line. That certainly preserves an iota of human dignity for people who may not feel very dignified for the greater part of each day.
There was not very much time, as you could imagine, to speak individually with each homeless person but everyone with whom I spoke was cordial and polite and full of smiles – especially if you asked their name! I learned that there were some who were not homeless but rather people who do not have much and who live simply, perhaps in a one-room apartment, but have trouble connecting with others. The people they know best and are most comfortable with are those they break bread with at the food kitchens for the homeless.
The homeless also have networks. They know where to get lunch and dinner every day, be it in the city or the suburbs, be it in a church or a school or the hall of some fraternal organization, and they share that info among themselves. They know where bathrooms are available and also know where the warming shelters are, such as those needed right after Christmas when temperatures plummeted so far that anyone sleeping outside would have surely died of the cold.
All of the food served through Catholic Charities five days a week is donated by Chicago restaurants! It is cooked and ready to be served when it arrives at the food kitchens. The diversity of the menu and the quantities offered were staggering – at least to me, a first time volunteer.
When the Christmas guests left the CC center, each one received a pair of gloves and one of the holy cards I had brought from Rome. Who knows…..
Individual parishes or organizations such as the Knights of Columbus or the Knights of Malta serve the meals Monday through Wednesday and volunteers come from the specific parish or organization. Holy Name Cathedral staff and parishioners volunteer on Thursdays and Fridays.
What most surprised and delighted me were the number of families who volunteered! And not just on Christmas Day – they come during the year as well. To see a family of 5 or 6 – Mom and Dad and the kids, even as young as 5! – was so very heart-warming!
To see the very young ones, and especially teenagers, have a good time, serve with joy and truly want to be volunteering was one of the biggest rewards of the day for me. My favorite was a little boy, about 5 or 6, whose name was Charlie. Charlie was the fastest member of the dessert brigade and probably had the biggest smile, I might add.
It was gratifying to think that these young people are learning at a tender age that there are people in the world who do not have what they have, a warm home, a family, an education and a much better chance in life to grow up and have their own family and home. These young people learn early about sacrifice, about helping others, about being altruistic, about the real meaning of charity.
There were no groans of “Mom, do I really have to be here!” or complaints about not being home Christmas morning. No pleading, “Are we through? Can we go home now?”
I saw – and experienced – the real joy of giving!