One of the great ministries of the Presbyterian Church in Greater New Orleans is the Program of Hope, offered each Wednesday morning, at First Presbyterian in New Orleans. First, Faith, Lakeview, John Calvin, Kenner, Parkway, and St. Charles Presbyterian all support this ministry which helps the unemployed and underemployed. Anyone who comes gets access to worship, food, toiletries, clothes, bus tokens, and (twice a month) a night at the homeless shelter. The program has helped enough folks that some of our volunteers are former homeless folks who used to come for services. Today, one of the coordinators for the Program of Hope asked me to go and sit with one of the gentlemen who needed help lifting a case he had with him. So, I went and sat by him. As in the past, without identifying anyone, I like to relate what I discovered.
Gentleman One: In his sixties, from Galveston. “I came here for work, but couldn’t find any employment. I like the city, but without a job, I need to get home. I haven’t figured out how to get back yet though. Thank goodness for this ministry.”
Gentlemen Two: In his fifties, also from Galveston. “I’m friends with (Gentleman One) because I found out he was from Galveston too. I just came down here because I heard businesses were hiring. But, so far, no good.
Lady One: In her forties. “I love this church. I mean, this is what the church should be like. Everyone is equal here. Did you hear of the tsunami that happened near China this weekend? (I hadn’t). They have had more than a few of those. And then there are the tornadoes. Lots of those. And the hurricanes around here. I tell you, we are messing up the environment, it is making all the water warmer, and the storms are getting stronger.”
Me to Gentleman Four (Standing, instead of sitting, nearby and wearing a pancho): Excuse me, are or were you in the military?
Gentleman Four: Yes, how did you know?
Me: Military folks just have a certain bearing. I don’t know.
Gentleman Four: I was in the Army for seven years. I deployed. I got out. My mother was from old Metairie in the past, so I moved here.
Me: What was your specialty?
Gentleman Four: I was a chef. I had a job at first but could only work for a week because of my kidney stones (I notice a VA hospital armband still on). I just got out of the hospital, the VA took care of me, but now I don’t have a job. I’m looking though. I do construction work when I can’t find a restaurant to hire me.
Gentleman Two (looking at me): So, how did you get stranded down here?
(No one seemed surprised by his question. It was at this point that I realized that these four good souls didn’t know that I had come to sit with them to help Gentleman one. They assumed I was just like them, down on my luck. I explained that I was a pastor and a chaplain).
Gentleman Two: So you are the pastor here?
Me: No, Fred is (I point to him and Fred comes and starts talking with each individually, inviting them all to come to church).
Gentleman Two: Do you carry a gun in the military?
Me: No. I was trained in my first career field but we are there to provide spiritual support, they figure we don’t need guns.
Gentleman Two: Sometimes you need a gun.
Lady One: Some folks don’t. (Again looking at me) So, do you do exorcisms?
Me: I do pray for folks, no matter what they suffer from. But honestly, no one has ever asked me that before.
Lady One: You know there used not to be much of a difference between pastors and doctors. Pastors even did house calls.
Me: I kind of figure I don’t have any special power, that comes from God.
Lady One: Oh, of course, but you have special talents. You should use them.
(At this point, the Program of Hope folks needed me to gather up extra donations to go to the Ozanam Inn, so I excused myself. Ozanam Inn is a homeless mission downtown. We had extra shoes and sandwiches which we knew they would take. It’s downtown and we drove down there. But we couldn’t park out front as usual due to all the parked cars, so we pulled into the side. About thirty homeless waited outside. I walked in).
Worker: I am sorry sir, you will go in line, we have to take turns.
(I again had been taken to be a homeless person. As soon as I said who I was they quickly shifted gears and got lots of folks to come help me unload my truck. But it tells me something of the shifting homeless population demographics. Take away my truck and my family, even though I had on Dockers and a button up shirt (with my perpetual running shoes so that I can run later today) and I blend in as one of the homeless. Homeless folks today aren’t always unkempt, in dirty clothes, and living n a box. They can look just like me. And, of course, spiritually there is no difference. Nevertheless, it makes me realize the shifting sands people find themselves on these days. I am grateful to help and to be a part of a church that values helping everyone).
Until next time,