A teen retreat with a difference
Serving the homeless in Chicago’s inner city
“Cold on the outside but warm in my heart.”
“You can put together food and clothes for the homeless, but it is very different giving things personally and experiencing such joy when you see the happy faces of the people who have received these things.”
These were just two of the impressions left by close to 70 young people from various parts of the Midwest who spent a weekend together at the service of the homeless in downtown Chicago. It was a weekend using “heads, hands and hearts” to bring joy to as many people as possible.
An added bonus was when they discovered that on that very same weekend Pope Francis proclaimed November 19 as World Day of the Poor. This felt like far more than a coincidence, and it gave an even greater value to each action, whether it was helping to prepare the food or sorting out the clothes they had collected, so that each person they met would feel their personal love.
Some of the young people even wrote to Pope Francis, thanking him for reminding them to help those in need, because then it was easy to recognize Jesus in each one and to discover a new joy that became contagious.
The idea came from one youth leader who travels into Chicago each day for work, asking himself what more he could do for the many homeless people he met. Sharing his question with friends, they realized that they could turn an upcoming retreat with young people into “a retreat with a difference.” Besides devoting time to their relationship with God, they could put their talents and energy at the service of the homeless.
The morning of the retreat began by reminding one another that all people are members of the one family of God, and so they started by building relationships with one another, especially with the young people who had come for the first time, and not just staying with the friends they knew.
Then they set out, preparing the food and sorting all the clothes they had collected by size so that people could choose what they needed.
“About 150 guests turned up, and we were not sure if there was enough food for them and for us, but once we started serving them our hunger faded away as we felt God filled us with so much love and joy. I was so struck by one lady who said that it was so good that we had included vegetables in the meal, because that is what she misses the most,” said one girl.
The young people realized that loving also means listening, and some of these new friends shared their stories and the challenges they face. It was a real discovery understanding that homeless people were just like them, but because of difficult circumstances had ended up without a place to live.
A beautiful moment was when the teens became like salespeople, showing the clothes they had brought with them and helping each one to choose what they wanted and deciding together what seemed to suit them the most! That was where they understood the value and dignity of each person as a child of God. Bonds were created and barriers quickly disappeared.
At the end of the afternoon many of the guests helped to pack everything up and put it in the car showing the reciprocity of love in action.
And the young people expressed their hope to repeat this kind of action more frequently, seeing how they can make a difference — even if just for a few people.
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