Kate Lutz, current JV AmeriCorps member in Missoula, MT, reflects on her evolving understanding of what it means to serve others:
Before starting my year as a JV, I had an encounter with an individual experiencing homelessness. My friend and I went grocery shopping and saw a man standing on the corner holding a sign saying something along the lines of, “Homeless, hungry, anything helps. God bless you.” We immediately decided it would be a good idea to buy this man food. I recall that we bought him a granola bar, or something completely unsubstantial. As we approached the corner where the man stood, hoping for a red light so we could pass along our offering, I remember feeling really great about myself. “Wow,” I must have thought, “I am such a good person.” Handing the man the granola bar, I expected him to thank me under weary, grateful eyes, but instead he asked begrudgingly, “Is that it?” We were shocked and a little angry at the aggressive response, suddenly a little scared. He grabbed the bar out of my hand and turned his back to our car as the light turned green, and we drove away.
College was the first time I heard the term social justice and began to recognize the social injustices that affect so many. I learned the facts, believing I understood the experience of the marginalized. Now, I know that my understanding was flat and disproportionate. During our first couple months in Missoula, my housemates and I discussed what brought us to JVC Northwest, and one of my community members said something that stuck with me, “There is a big difference between charity and service.” For me, this distinction sums up the value of serving 40 hours a week for a full year. Working at the Poverello Center, a homeless shelter located in downtown Missoula, I have grown to understand the difference.
“The POV” is a 30-day emergency shelter, housing up to 100 people a night. In my time here I have already seen many folks come and go. My day is busy, the tiny staff office is the hub for questions and resources, from toothpaste to an ambulance, I expect the unexpected. We accompany those from the time they first enter the POV to the time they either acquire housing or decide to move on. Meeting individuals the first time they come seeking services, I can almost see the weight of their situation, whatever it may be. From unemployment to addiction, each person carries with them the anxiety of their experiences, as we all do. Once the ice is broken, and the big blue, old, monstrosity of a house that is the POV is no longer an intimidating mystery, they can begin to move forward. Being a consistent presence at the POV for our clients is humbling because it’s in that daily presence that I find the definition of service. I’ve learned the importance of simply being there and walking with folks beyond the time they are initially seeking shelter and food, and not assuming what their needs are and that they are met. I remind myself daily to find the patience required to serve, rather than simply offer charity. I try to learn from the example of the POV staff who have been doing this for years; I am continually impressed by them in all situations as the dignity of our clients is always the highest priority.
My time at the POV has redefined my idea of homelessness. I cringe a little when I think back to my teenage self, giving that man a granola bar. I know I had the right intentions, but I had yet to close the imperative gap of acknowledging my lack of understading. I have since realized that we are all inherently the same, and no longer think of individuals in transition as some sort of “other.” I know my experience working at the POV and living in community with fellow Jesuit Volunteers will provide me with the tools I need to authentically serve for the rest of my life.