February 27, 2014 by Alex Johannigman
I’m just about at the middle of my year of service at Christ in the City in Denver, and I thought that many of you would like to hear about what I’ve been up to in the first 6 months.
Life as a missionary to the homeless has been incredibly challenging, demanding, and at times, heartbreaking, but at the same time it has been a very eye-opening and rewarding experience. I’ve learned a lot about homelessness and poverty, and a lot of my experiences have truly surprised me. I’ve learned that there is no stereotypical homeless person. I think before coming here, I frequently assumed that everyone who lived on the streets was either a drug or alcohol addict or had some kind of mental illness, but that mold only fits a portion of the people that I’ve served. Many are recently jobless, but lack family or any kind of support system to take care of them when they are in need. It’s so easy to take the blessings that I’ve had in my life, such as my family and education, for granted.
They are a truly diverse bunch. There are some who are trying to find permanent housing, and some who enjoy the freedom that comes with life on the streets. Some are young, even younger than I am, and some have children and grandchildren of their own. Some had successful careers that fell apart, and some are still trying to figure out what their calling in life is.
I’ve been surprised to find how easy people are to talk to, and also how generous many of them are. For example, I’ve recently started getting to know a man named Alan who was homeless for a long time but has found enough work to be able to afford a small studio apartment in the city. Even though he struggles to make enough money to pay rent, he frequently opens up his home to feed home cooked meals to his homeless friends and tries to fit as many of them as possible into his tiny apartment on nights when the winter temperature makes it dangerous to be sleeping outdoors. I’ve also recently met a man named Gary who got out of jail last week. Despite only having $7 to his name when he was released, he still thought it was important to give $2 to a man he met who needed bus fare. It’s made me question if I’m really generous enough with my own time and material resources.
Most of the men and women I’ve talked to also have awesome stories to tell, from times spent as a crabber off the coast of Alaska, to experiences working in casinos in Las Vegas, to raising a family during better economic times. Talking to my new-found friends on the street has made me appreciate even more deeply the beauty of the human experience.
Every Christ in the City missionary is placed in a specific agency at the beginning of the year based on the unique interests and skills that the leadership notices in them through reading their application and observing them during training. I began the year working at Regis University as a coordinator of a service program called Father Woody’s. I spent Monday-Thursday of each week driving students in a van to low-income schools to help tutor students and to homeless shelters to drop off donations and serve food. I also spent a lot of time at the university preparing for an annual Christmas party for the homeless which provides food and gifts to nearly 4000 adults and children in need. The party itself was a huge success, and it was great to see so many people receiving the toys and clothes that I had spent months sorting and wrapping along with the many Regis students that I led.
In addition to working at Regis, I also spent last semester teaching a class titled “Agape: Faith and Service” once a week at the Samaritan House, a homeless shelter in Denver operated by Catholic Charities. In that class I taught a number of adults living in the Samaritan House about community, love, and spirituality. I got to hear about how they have experienced love, or the lack thereof, in their life, and teach them about God’s love for us and how we are called to love those around us.
This semester I have been moved from Regis University to work on the Homeless Task Force, the section of Christ in the City that goes out to the streets every day to find people who have fallen through the cracks of society and build relationships with them. Now, rather than just interacting with the homeless during Christ in the City’s weekly lunches in the park and while teaching at the Samaritan House, I have been given the chance to reach out to them every day, rain, shine, snow, or ice, and find ways to meet their material, emotional, and spiritual needs. I go out with another missionary to the Capitol Hill area of Denver and build relationships with the people I encounter there. Capitol Hill is interesting because it is an area where many people who struggle with drug and alcohol addictions spend their time as a way to escape society. I sometimes find myself approaching people who just don’t want to talk, in which case there isn’t much I can do to help them aside from praying for them.
I’ve also moved from teaching at the Samaritan House to helping with Hispanic ministry at Holy Name parish. Many middle school students walk through the church parking lot after school on their way home, so we’ve begun offering free food and drinks to these students on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. We use that as a way to build relationships with the middle school students and also invite them to our Friday night small groups. On Fridays I lead a class for middle school aged boys to teach them more about the Catholic faith, similar to what I was doing on Wednesdays in Plano at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Many of the guys who attend that class are kids that I see on Tuesdays and Thursdays after they get out of classes, so I’ve gotten a chance to get to know some of them pretty well already.
Community life has been one of the most challenging aspects of the Christ in the City experience, but also one of my favorite parts of the program. Last August, we had 6 men and 6 women living in one house together, which meant I really had to become a much less selfish person and learn to love everyone in my community despite their flaws and quirks. After losing some missionaries in December and gaining some more in January, the house has 2 men and 8 women, which makes it even more difficult for me. Despite its challenges, community life has also been incredibly rewarding and I’ve made many friendships with my missionary brothers and sisters that I’m sure I will keep with me forever.