Our parish hosts an on-site warming shelter for the homeless that is open from 8pm – 8am for six months of the year. In September, our youth ministry participated in the Give It Away Now: Shelter the Homeless event. We collected numerous items to be handed out to the guests at the warming shelter, invited in speakers from the homeless and warming shelters, and encouraged teens to serve at least one hour at one of the two shelters.
My Core Team, in their infinite wisdom, decided that if we were asking the teens to serve the homeless for an hour, we should volunteer as well. A group of us attended the volunteer orientation at the warming shelter and all signed up for different evenings to help clean, do laundry, check in the guests, serve meals, and assist the staff.
I had served the homeless before on mission trips and as part of service projects with the teens across the country. I thought I had a pretty good handle on what to expect at my first shift.
Then, the unexpected happened. Something none of my mission trips, immersion retreats, or service outings had prepared me for. This was the first time I had served the homeless community in my own town, and I was not prepared to know some of the guests. I was not prepared to see former teens and the parents of teens come in from the cold with everything the owned in a backpack on their back.
It shook me to see the dad of a girl I know very well come in to the shelter and discover that he is living in his car during the day. I am fairly certain this girl, now far away college, has no idea that her dad is homeless this winter.
It disturbed me to learn that one of the teens I had heard was attending the local college had never actually registered for school, but hung out on campus during the day, posing as a college student, sleeping at the warming shelter each night.
It broke my heart when I recognized that the lanky man with the gruff beard and over-sized sweatshirt had once been a slightly cubby inquisitive teen who had come to Life Teen.
It bothered me that the confidentiality agreements I had made when I started volunteering at the shelter meant that I could not reach out to any of the support systems I knew each of these individuals had to try to help. It bothered me even more to know that some of them didn’t want that kind of help.
At first, I felt helpless. I felt so inadequate, certain that futzing with the finicky washing machine for my shift couldn’t do anything for these individuals. I felt like all I could do was to be there, and that being there wasn’t enough.
Then I realized that “being there” is the hallmark of relational ministry. Everything we do in youth ministry stems from building relationships by listening, sharing, and engaging in the lives of these teenagers. Before the ministry of planning a Life Night, of collecting permission slips for a retreat, of attending committee meetings, or of documenting Confirmation paperwork comes the ministry of presence.
Volunteering at the warming shelter that first night reminded me that what I had to offer those homeless men and women was not helpless or inadequate. I offered them the opportunity to encounter someone with whom they had a connection – someone who would see them as a child of God with value and dignity and worth that was not at all connected to where they were sleeping that night.
This important reminder has followed me into my youth ministry. As a coordinator, it is easy get bogged down in administrative tasks that demand immediate attention and miss the opportunities to be present.
- I can get caught up in tracking down a baptismal certificate at a Confirmation class and miss the opportunity to ask the teen whose baptismal record I’m hunting for how their day is going.
- I can miss the chance to listen and empathize with a struggling parent because I’m checking my emails while I’m talking on the phone with them.
- I can fail to recognize ways I could be praying for my fellow staff members because I’m frustrated at a staff meeting that feels like a waste of time.
- I can feel like setting up for the skit, uploading our Life Night pictures, or checking in with the dinner crew is a more valuable use of my time than sitting in on one of the amazing small group discussions happening during a Life Night.
I’ve signed up to be a regular volunteer at the warming shelter not because I feel like I’m doing something good, but because being with these men and women reminds me of the incredible value of the ministry of presence. They have helped me remember that taking time to stop and acknowledge that the person standing in front of me is a child of God, made in His image and likeness, has to come before any other part of my ministry – whether that be ministry to teens, ministry to my Core Team, ministry to parents, ministry to my own family. or ministry to the homeless.