Saints of the Streets

“Lost people matter to God, and so they must matter to us.”
– Keith Wright

Have you ever prayed with a stranger? On the streets of New York City and surrounding Metro area, a committed group of humble servants are doing it every single week. Through mobile outreach, these urban missionaries work tirelessly in the field, putting themselves squarely among  those in need; the destitute, the unlucky, the vulnerable.

I first volunteered with NYC Relief on their “Don’t Walk By” outreach, and the experience has stayed with me in ways I can’t describe in mere words. This past December, I volunteered with them again, this time on the Relief Bus. It was, I believe, the coldest day of our winter; a Friday morning with temperatures in the 20s that felt like the teens. But freezing temperatures can’t, and never will, hinder the work of this incredible organization of people. If anything, the bone-chilling air that day seemed to redouble our efforts in distributing fresh hot soup, bread, fruit, hot chocolate, and friendly conversation at 125th street in East Harlem.

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In addition to food and beverages, Relief Bus volunteers provide clothing and hygiene kits upon request, while staffers and team leaders sit down one-on-one to arrange referrals and guidance for job training, shelter, addiction treatment, and medical care. The Relief Bus mission is – and I can’t stress this enough – a profoundly hospitable, welcoming, and personal one, as volunteers do much more than simply hand cups of soup to hungry people. It is, first and foremost, about engagement and interaction. We learn their names and they learn ours. We set up folding chairs and tables on the sidewalks so folks can sit and socialize, and the volunteers alternate between serving from the bus kitchen and joining folks in their meal; chatting, conversing, laughing, listening, telling stories, sharing memories, asking questions, or just sitting across from them with bread and soup in quiet companionship, if that is preferred.

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For me, the most transformative part of Relief service has been the prayer. Nobody who volunteers has to participate in this aspect, as individuals of all faiths, or no faith, serve with the Relief Bus and are not expected to do anything with which they are uncomfortable. But for those of us who do pray with Relief Bus visitors, the act of supplicating to God on their behalf enriches the spirit in untold ways. When a person enters the bus to collect a hygiene kit or item of clothing, we volunteers are there to greet them and ask if they would like to receive prayer. Some say “no, that’s fine. I’m good, thank you”. The majority say yes. What do poverty-stricken folks request for prayer? You’d be astonished at the breadth and depth and thoughtfulness of their appeals: “to get my children back” … “to find affordable housing” … “for the healing of our country and for everyone to love each other” … “treatment for my addiction” … “relief from my arthritis” … “for my grandmother in Puerto Rico who has Alzheimer’s” … “to be reunited with my family who have given up on me” … “for those suffering people in Syria and those poor children being bombed” … “for the end of bigotry” … “for my brother doing 25 to life in Attica” … “for all homeless people everywhere” … “to know my son again, he lives in Texas and we haven’t spoken in five years” … “to get a job because I’m able and willing to work” … “for the strength to break my bad habits” … “I’d like Psalm 23 please, if that’s ok?” .. and, in a few beautiful instances, requests of “can I pray for you? Can I pray for all of you on the Relief Bus who come here every week to serve us?” Of course you can pray for us. Of course. And they do.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.”
Psalm 23

The NYC Relief mission is not the stuff of wild-eyed ‘fire and brimstone’ preachers who terrorize people with judgment and condemnation. It is none of the heresies and idolatry being passed off as Christianity these days. This is love and mercy, kindness and compassion. This is the Gospel. This is the understanding that God is about restoration, renewal, hope, and comfort. This is letting people who feel forgotten know that they are not forgotten.

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A class of first graders in Elizabeth, New Jersey gathered hygiene kits, packaged them in individually designed bags they created, and donated them to the Relief Bus. Wonderful colors! You can see a photo of these smiling angels on this Instagram page.

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On my last two experiences volunteering with the Relief Bus, I had the great privilege to serve side-by-side with extraordinary volunteers of a church group from Indiana. They are in town as part of their Christian mission and their grace, warmth, good cheer, and work ethic were an absolute inspiration to me. Magnificent people. Their personal stories, like so many stories that define us Christians, were ones of a calling, of salvation, of redemption, stories that bring forth the kind of humility that enables true servants to feel deep empathy and relate to brokenness, fear, and imperfection in our fellow man and woman. Because sanctimony has no place in service. So to the volunteers who came all the way from Grace Church in Noblesville, it was a tremendous honor. Thank you. And I hope to see you all again!

One of my favorite photos from the NYC Relief Instagram page is this one, as it perfectly captures the volunteering experience with this outreach organization. It makes me teary eyed every time I look at it. But I recommend viewing the entire Instagram and its excellent photos and comments, or you can watch this terrific video on YouTube.

Thank you all for reading. I appreciate it 🙂

14 thoughts on “Saints of the Streets

  1. kdmedina says:

    Wonderful. We had the retired Archbishop of Nigeria at church today. I had many thoughts about the Christian life and community. We have many blessings.

    Few people refuse prayer. Even non-believers know it’s giving them our best, our dearest thing.

    • artmodel says:

      Ken,

      I hope the non-believers know that. It’s important that they do. And like you said, and as I experienced with the Relief Bus, very few refuse prayer.

      Wonderful that you had the visit from the Nigerian Archbishop! Must have been an informative and illuminating discourse.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Claudia

  2. Bill says:

    Thank you for sharing this. So much of that hunger — physical, emotional, spiritual — is invisible on a day-to-day basis . . . I think that we need to be reminded regularly. .

    • artmodel says:

      Bill,

      I agree. Although in my city over the past couple of years, the visibility has become quite commonplace on our streets. It is, truly, a crisis.

      Thanks so much for your comment.

      Claudia

  3. Rosanne says:

    Beautiful work you are all doing. Thanks for sharing this.
    God Bless!

    • artmodel says:

      malefiguredrawingmodel, you’re very kind. But I’d say that the real angels are the staff and outreach leaders of the NYC Relief. They are amazing people.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Claudia

  4. Ray says:

    Your doing good works. Creating good Karma.

  5. roberta m says:

    Thank you for this informative post. Although the visibility is not as high in my area as it is in your big city, there are those who are suffering and need “good works”. Your post is very motivating.

    • artmodel says:

      Roberta,

      If this post has motivated you, or anybody who read it, that just warms my heart! There are so many ways to do good works, even for those with busy lives and/or different preferences. Some are comfortable stocking the shelves in food pantries, or delivering food to shut-ins. Help comes in many forms.

      Thank you so much for your comments!

      Claudia

  6. Steve Y says:

    Hi Claudia,
    Thank you for volunteering and showing God’s love and compassion to our neighbors in need. Wish I had time to donate, however there just isn’t enough at this time; it’s a beautiful thing when churches/para-church organizations take the lead to provide. Here in Woodbridge St James Catholic community distributed 4,700+ meals & groceries last year and lending support to homeless shelters in the local area.

    Thank you also for contrasting the faith with the more aberrant forms that are out there. The latter plays mostly to American consumerism, not understanding God’s justice and mercy in Christ and certainly not delivering the forgiveness of sins to their people in word & sacrament.

    Finally it’s a confession that the commandments not only are just, holy and good, but it shows us what mercy toward our neighbor looks like in word and deed.

    Blessings to you Claudia,

    • artmodel says:

      Steve,

      Thank you for your beautiful comments on this post. Amen.
      The Catholic community in Woodbridge is doing great work. 4700+ meals is outstanding. And I hear you about time issues. How I wish I had more time to serve, and more money to give. But that’s the thing about service/volunteering/giving. Anything and everything matters, whatever we can manage. God knows our hearts and our lives.

      Yes, I couldn’t consider this post complete without calling out those “aberrant” forms – as you so aptly put it. We’ve conversed about all that in the past. The prosperity preachers and false prophets. It makes me cringe. The folks I’ve met through the Relief Bus have a much truer, deeper, more authentic understanding of our faith, compassion, and forgiveness and the love of Christ, than any of those misguided idolators.

      Great to hear from you, friend. Peace and blessings to you …

      Claudia

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