“People would ask why I let all these homeless people sleep in the church, not knowing if they would try to steal from me or the parish. And I would always respond: how could I turn away Jesus coming to my door and asking for a place to sleep or something to eat?” I heard this story from a priest at our first dinner with the Augustinians in September as he told me about the warming center he began at his former parish in Seattle. What began as a question about what I would be doing at my service site at HELP of Ojai, turned into a fascinating story of his perception of Jesus in the face of each person he meets.
Having only worked three days up to that conversation, I gave a somewhat generic answer as to what basic services are provided by HELP of Ojai’s Community Assistance Program: we work with the low-income, homeless, and senior population in the Ojai Valley to assist in meeting their basic needs as best as possible. However, I’m learning that this hardly touches the surface of the people and stories I have encountered and will see each day at HELP.
From being put in charge of the Adopt-A-Family project that provides Thanksgiving boxes and Christmas gifts to families in need, to being the sole Spanish speaker in the office able to help clients with very limited English, to meeting with home-bound seniors on house visits, I have come across incredibly varied personalities and a lifetime of stories. I’ve heard stories of cancer ripping through families, of near-miracles in surgeries, of loneliness and depression, of abuse and neglect, and of homelessness–stories that give me a deep heartache.
On the days when the heartache is greatest and it seems like all our efforts go to waste, I try to keep in mind all the little successes: having a client who remembered my name the second day of work, listening to a woman tell me how grateful she was to receive our help, giving a woman the news that she would be able to give her children Christmas gifts this year, meeting saintly, giving volunteers, and, most importantly, of the evident faith through it all.
Coming into this experience, I thought my own personal spiritual life and my work life would be separate. Yet I’ve come to find that, most often, work has reminded me of why I’m here and how God guides each day. Whether it’s learning about a client’s relationship with God in signing them up for Adopt-A-Family, or listening to a woman’s belief that God’s power helped her survive two open heart surgeries, or finding out that a previously homeless client has finally been housed after months of prayers, there are ample places to see God every day I come into work.
Mother Teresa once said, “Whenever I meet someone in need, it is really Jesus in his most distressing disguise.” Though the Augustinian priest I met that first dinner who told me how he sees Jesus in each person he meets, I’ve found myself reflecting on the idea that he might have been the voice of God for me that night, guiding me into this year of service. And even on the most difficult days, that thought pushes me to try to see the perseverance, dignity, and overall goodness in each person I meet.
Ventura, CA 2017-2018