I Can’t Beg the World for Change if I Cannot Do it Myself

Although we are all impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, I can’t help but feel like the guests at Loaves & Fishes are suffering the most. For our guests, their modes of survival depend on many facilities throughout the Sacramento area, but those locations are no longer available. This puts a lot of weight on the staff at Loaves & Fishes. Being a Mercy Volunteer, it took time for me to adjust to our guests and try to understand their pain. 

Although I will never be able to fully empathize with the pain of people experiencing homelessness, the world they live in (which already creates the conditions of daily struggle) has completely altered yet again. Our guests, which I often refer to as family now, don’t have the privilege or option to stay at home and still survive. Everyday some of our guests have to choose between catching a deadly virus or starving. Many of our guests don’t have a tent to stay in and feel safe, where some express never feeling safe at all. 

While Loaves & Fishes staff are doing amazing things with carrying the load of caring for the homeless population of Sacramento, I can’t help but feel like the city could be doing more. Throughout the past week, myself and some staff at Friendship Park, led by the Advocacy Director Joe Smith, have been visiting camps and talking with the homeless population. They all say no one else has been there. My question is why? 

Why has no one else bothered to stop by and care for our people? In the words of Gandhi, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” In that regard, we could all be doing more. A lot of our guests can’t understand the severity of this virus. This is due to the extreme, real fact, that many of the guests we see are impacted by mental illness and physical and intellectual disabilities. How can we simply get more guests to understand it? How can we help our guests to get tested? And how can we ensure they all get the basics of survival: water, food, and hygiene care? 

These are issues and people that I feel like no one cares about. Most days I find myself arguing with my mother because she cannot grasp how I would risk my life everyday for free. I often relay to her that I can’t beg the world for change if I cannot do it myself. 

To Serve the Least of These

Mustard Seed School team member supporting the Sacramento Loaves & Fishes Dining Room.

Four weeks ago I greeted my preschool students at my classroom door with their choice of a high-five, a handshake, or a hug. There was a feeling of uncertainty in our program as talk of countywide school closures due to COVID-19 signaled the potential for Mustard Seed to close its doors to a regular academic day. One of my students, an energetic lover of all things glue and scissors, turned 5 that day. We celebrated with a morning birthday circle and cupcakes and juice boxes brought by the birthday girl’s mom at lunchtime. It was the first and last day for my youngest student, who had recently turned 3, and I was worried his mom might be upset when she picked him up and saw his cheeks and hands stained with red dye from his celebratory cupcake.

Fast forward one week, and my classroom, along with the other four Mustard Seed classrooms, were closed. Our office remained open. Our Outreach Coordinator, Lucia, made phone calls to parents and shelters, checking in with our students, offering whatever services were available. But were they still our students? Where were the families we were unable to contact? Were they safe? How do we continue to help as the guidelines for protecting ourselves and each other from getting sick get tighter every day?

My duties as a Montessori preschool teacher at a school for children experiencing homelessness felt obsolete, and my new role became support for other programs at Loaves & Fishes still serving and meeting the survival needs of our guests in a pandemic. Mustard Seed staff began checking in with Maryhouse, Friendship Park, and the Dining Room, hoping to help. For the past few weeks, we have been supporting in any way possible. A few of us have been making hygiene kits, sorting donations, and restocking items handed to guests by gloved hands through the Maryhouse front entrance. Other staff have worked in the service center at Friendship Park and handed out lunch tickets to our guests. All of us have found ourselves prepping and serving lunch in the dining room. We have tried to be more of a help than a nuisance, and we have found ourselves in awe of the unique work and skills required of each program.

It has been in the dining room, the heartbeat of Loaves & Fishes, where my compassion and understanding of the guest has been fortified. I am struck, daily, by the resiliency of the men and women who go to sleep in a tent each night, thrown away by our society, who wake up each morning ready to live, and make their way to Loaves & Fishes for a hot meal. It has been the act of handing hot meals in a styrofoam container through a window to 400 men and women each day that has solidified my faith in the work of the saints around me and the mission of this holy place.

I am still a teacher, holding space in my heart for my students and their families. While my teaching duties are on hold, I remain committed to the philosophy and intention of Loaves & Fishes: to serve the least of these.

Embracing the Unexpected

When we learned that our services would be reduced in the wake of the pandemic, it could be presumed that there was a collective sigh of relief, but also an unexpressed guilt. The relief that staff and volunteers would be able to practice appropriate self care and necessary health precautions, but an even greater uncertainty as to how this would affect our guests – this coming at a time of abnormally cool and wet weather for Sacramento in March. 

Warm meals were still offered to our guests, but instead of dining inside, they were handed containers with food. I watched as some headed to the streets outside of the campus or returned to Friendship Park for their meal. I watched as a woman gathered her belongings outside of Maryhouse and glancing down, I acknowledged her feet – covered only in socks and a pair of slippers. I offered her a slight smile and wondered if that was insulting considering the circumstances. 

As we wait for the city to offer temporary shelter for our guests, we wonder if this is enough. If we are offering enough. If we are advocating enough. We ask ourselves “why” and sometimes unrelentingly question our actions and behaviours and wonder if any of this is creating an impact in the positive direction of change. We have to create the necessary boundaries for ourselves to maintain the necessary emotional well-being to return to these same questions every day; but as humans, as empathetic persons, we find it more difficult on some days to separate ourselves from the sense that we are responsible for our guests. 

While I am only one of many staff and volunteers on our campus, I do recognize we are all similar in spirit. So I recognize that I am just one of many that walks on campus lost in my own thoughts. As I exited the Annex one morning recently, I immediately released myself from these thoughts and became a  witness to simple joy. A boy, possibly slightly older than two years of age, was pumping his little legs up and down in a puddle that had developed from the overnight rain. He seemed oblivious to everyone around him and I looked up and made eye contact with his mother. She said, “He is in the wrong shoes for that but…” She trailed off knowing I would fill in the blanks, “But he is having so much fun and I live to see him smile.” I continued walking and he stopped stomping and reached down with his toddler sized gloved hand to tenuously reach down and touch his smiling reflection. 

His mother, with his sibling, were slowly walking towards their vehicle and she called for him. As with most children, he was hesitant to leave his fun, but already knew better, even at his young age, than to create too much conflict with his mom. He toddled towards her and his sibling and I waved goodbye and also verbalized “bye bye.” In his loudest voice, he said “bye” and waved. I turned around and walked down North C Street in the opposing direction. A couple of seconds later I hear “bye,” punctuated by another “bye” a second after. I paused, turned slightly and realized he had stopped in the middle of North C Street, looking in my direction, and was saying goodbye to me still. I stopped, turned around, repeated my wave and “bye.” He seemed now satisfied with my response and followed his mother and sibling to their van. 

On this day, at least, I felt satisfied with the “why.”