Students are invited to help the needy in Old Town
By Lindie Burgess
As I walked through Old Town for the first time, I didn't know how to interact with people. There were folks sitting on the edge of the sidewalk holding up their hands and asking for money. I took one look around me, searching for cues from other folks who looked like they knew what they were doing, and I followed suit. I intentionally brushed past the human beings sitting a few feet from where I was walking, and made sure I didn't make eye contact with any of them.
How many of you reading this article, regardless of whether you come from a huge city or a small town, have done the exact same thing? How many of you have given $1-2 to cut conversation short, or so that you can do a good deed for the day? How many of you have walked away from that scene without a second thought? Should you have a second thought?
I recognize that I'm not in a position to answer that question for you. As I stare at my computer screen, I realize that I can't make you care about any of the words that I have written, or the story of any person that I have come into contact with during the two months I have worked at the Downtown Chapel.
I can't make you care about the woman who sat on a piece of cardboard outside our red doors for the night, incontinent, waiting for us to open so that she could ask for a new pair of underwear and a clean pair of pants.
I can't make you care about the man who needed so desperately to come inside for a warm bite to eat, but whom we couldn't welcome into our hospitality center because he had fleas.
I can't make you care that around 80 percent of the community we serve are men, while around 80 percent of the clothing donations that come in are women's. I'm not in a position to make you do anything, but perhaps I can get you to think. Just a little.
When you hear the word "poverty," what comes into your mind? Unwashed hair, holey shoes, wet socks and dirt-stained skin? Unshaven faces, missing teeth and smells of body odor and old cigarette smoke?
When you think of poverty, you probably don't first think of yourself. The reality is that each of us is struggling with our own form of poverty. You may not be in a situation where you're concerned about whether you'll have a roof over your head tonight, or where you will get your next meal. However, I would wager that you have experienced or are currently experiencing situations of loneliness or isolation in your life. My guess is that there have been moments when things haven't been going your way when the illusion of worldly control has dissolved. This is the face of poverty.
The Downtown Chapel is a Roman Catholic Parish situated in the heart of Old Town Portland. The individuals we aim to serve are folks experiencing general poverty, suffering from mental illness, living without a home or grappling with addictions. The truth is that every single person who walks through our doors exists in a state of fragility, suffering from some form of poverty whether spiritual, physical, emotional or monetary. I walk through the red doors every morning as an individual seeking relationship, and arrive in the hospitality center part of a community.
What do you do when you're approached by another human being asking for help? Whether you're being asked for a dollar on the street, or to listen to what's going on in your best friend's life, the open invitation to be in community with another human being is there. The open invitation to listen a little closer, to walk a little bit more intentionally, and to be a little bit more human is there.
Keep in mind, the invitation is not just there for social workers, counselors or clergy, nor just students of those disciplines. This invitation is for anybody who works with and for human beings. I'm talking to you, engineers and mathematicians.
There is an office nestled in the corner of campus, behind The Bell Tower, called the Moreau Center. The folks who work there know a thing or two about how you can start to respond to this invitation. They are there to connect you to volunteer opportunities at the Downtown Chapel and other community partners working with folks struggling with homelessness, mental illness, and addiction. Or they can connect you to a variety of other places like Roosevelt High School (tutoring), L'arche (a community with adults with disabilities), The Rebuilding Center (deconstruction and furniture building) and Friends of Trees (planting and caring for trees).
I challenge you to respond to this invitation. Not only as an engineering alumn from the University of Portland, or a St. Andre Fellow at the Downtown Chapel, but as a student of life who recognizes that we're all in this together.
Lindie Burgess is the evening hospitality coordinator for the Downtown Chapel and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org