I have only been to Siena/Francis House once, about a couple of weeks ago with some fellow volunteers with the Creighton Center for Service and Justice. I remember walking in with my peers, anticipating being directly addressed. What should I say? What is there to talk about? The weather, the news, sports?
There were two older African-American men sitting by the door, holding onto their canes, welcoming us all with wide grins as we walked in. I tried my best to smile, instead of grimacing. I didn’t want to show that I was uncomfortable, that I didn’t know how to act or what to say. Should I remain quiet and only answer if I’m spoken to, or should I engage the people around me in conversation?
Our dinner that day consisted of a hot dog, some steamed vegetables, chunks of potatoes, and a small desert. A guy from Creighton sitting across the table offered to pour coffee or water into everyone’s mugs. I felt a tinge of envy mixed in with guilt, that he had already taken a step forward to serve, and that I just sat back in silence.
I had already eaten dinner that day, although it was an early one. It was only five o’clock in the afternoon and this was my fourth meal of the day. Imagine that. I felt really full as soon as I had finished eating, but I thought that it would have been rude for me to refuse the meal. I didn’t know if it was a good idea for me to give away my food. Later on, one of my peers said that an argument ensued after he offered his hot dog up to anyone who wanted it. I tried to swallow my shock.
The image took me back to another world, one in which characters of Dickens and Hugo struggle against poverty to survive. Were people really willing to fight for an extra hot dog, in this day and age, a five minute drive away from Creighton?
During our dinner, I tried to talk to everyone at the table. The man next to me answered my questions quickly and clearly, but said no more than a couple of words. As soon as he was done eating, he said goodbye and left. The couple on the other side of me stayed for a few minutes after they finished eating. The guy was very talkative and friendly. The young woman was quiet and when I asked her if there was something wrong, she shook her head and said that she was just feeling sick. Her partner said, “Oh no. We don’t want to talk about that.” I hoped that she wasn’t pregnant, that she wouldn’t have to worry about another life along with her own and the extra expense that it would bring.
After dinner, we listened to a woman tell us her life story. She needed help, because she was an alcoholic. Her biggest problem, she said, was denying it for many years until finally, she lost the job that she had had for about twenty years. Without a college degree, she would have a lot of trouble getting another one. Siena/Francis provided her with the opportunity to become sober and to gain control of her life again. While she was speaking, I kept on wondering: Why is my life so different than hers and the lives of these people? Where did I go “right” and they “wrong”? Was there a fork in the road and I just so happened to pick the lucky direction, or was it something more? Should I be more thankful for my strict parents and my private education? Did anyone here have similar safety nets? Did they have any at all?
On my way out of Siena/Francis House, I saw a very young couple playing with their two children. They couldn’t have been older than twenty-five years old each. The mom had dyed pink hair, but the dad and the kids all had strawberry blond locks. He was holding up the infant in the air, making funny faces, and kissing the boy on his cheeks. The mom was zipping up her toddler’s jacket. They were heading out, leaving. I started tearing up and I quickly looked down toward my shoes. I didn’t want anyone to think I pitied them, but I just wanted the family to stay. Just to stay at the shelter with their kids and to keep on playing with them and kissing them.
What I hoped to gain on my Fall Break Service Trip to Siena/Francis House is exactly the kind of moments that I just wrote about. I hope to gain an understanding of the people that homelessness and poverty affects. I know that I will not be able to reach the complex root causes of these ever-persistent issues, but I hope to recognize the problem from the perspective of an individual without a home and enough food for themselves or their family members.
I hope to feel hunger and the cold air. More importantly, I hope that I recognize how privileged I am and the reasons for my privilege, so that I will not only wallow in self-hatred or shame, but seek to educate myself even more about this issue. Finally, I hope to advocate for those who do not have a voice, either because they no longer have the strength to speak, or because they have been silenced.
Finally, I hope to serve and to give love to every person that I come across at Siena/Francis House, so that I can make their difficult days seem at least a little bit brighter. I hope to look into their eyes and hold their hands. I hope to provide them with some warm words, if not more.
If all else fails, I hope to at least to engage in the simplest of conversations, so that they know that I do want to hear whatever it is that they may want to say. I hope to remember their stories and retell them. Most of all, I hope to give everyone that I encounter the most basic message there is: You are a person like me. You have a story, and I want to know it, because I am your neighbor and your friend.
Class of 2014
The CCSJ blogs are meant to be a place for Creighton students, faculty, staff, alumni/ae, and friends to reflect on their experiences with programs sponsored by the office or related to its mission. The views expressed in these reflections, and all other blogs found on or linked to from this website, are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of Creighton University, the Creighton Center for Service and Justice (CCSJ), or any of the University’s affiliates. The University and the CCSJ are not responsible for the actions, content, accuracy, or opinions expressed in these blogs.