This is what love looks like
BY TONI CASHNELLI
Joking, jostling and trading football cheers, volunteers pile into a van in the alley behind St. Aloysius Church in Detroit.
"Go Blue!" shouts Michigan fan Ann O’Flaherty. "Go, Irish!" returns Joe Thilman – no mistaking that reference. At 7:45 on a frosty morning in Detroit, people have no business being this cheerful. Yet here they are, clad in aprons that read, "St. Aloysius Neighborhood Services", heading to the site of their street ministry. OLG postulant Andrew Koon, the newest member of this merry band, pulls his wool cap over his ears and joins in the banter.
Br. Ed Gura hands up the last box of bologna and cheese sandwiches, hops into the front seat and signals the driver. "Why aren’t you wearing a coat?" someone asks. Ed shrugs. He’s serving hot coffee today; that will keep him warm.
A few blocks later they park across the street from the Rosa Parks Transit Center, where a couple dozen people are already forming a line. On a day too chilly for standing still, folks shove gloveless hands in the pockets of their ill-fitting coats or flap arms and stomp the ground for warmth. Dorian Bellinger alights from St. Al’s van with a boom box, sets it on the sidewalk, slips in a Motown CD and turns up the volume.
As the Supremes caution, You Can’t Hurry Love, Ann and Andrew unload boxes of sandwiches, shampoo, lotion, hair conditioner and toothpaste. Ed opens the back of the van and reaches for coffee cups. "What’s your pleasure today?" he asks a woman in line, as though she were a customer at Starbucks. "Can I get hot chocolate?" she asks. "Have a good day, my friend," Ed tells her, handing over a steaming cup. "In the mind of God are constant thoughts of you.
As the queue begins to move, Dorian holds up a hand: "Can we take one second to praise the Lord?"
Most breadlines remind you how hard life can be.
This one helps you forget. Amidst the music and camaraderie, it’s more like a party at which every guest knows everyone else. "We’ve been friends for five years," says a grizzled guy named Lloyd, throwing an arm around Joe.
"I’m wondering what’s become of Phil?" Ed asks Ann’s husband, Dennis, his compatriot at the coffee station. "I haven’t seen him in a long time." Richard, the next guest in line, holds up a cup. "The usual?" Ed says. Richard nods and smiles. "I’d like a little coffee with my cream and sugar." The jokester behind him steps forward and announces, "I’ll take a latte."
Most of these folks are regulars, says Ann, an 11-year veteran of St. Al’s street ministry. "It’s a mix of people," says Ed, who with two years of experience at this calls himself "the new kid on the block." Some are homeless and come directly from rescue missions like COTS, the Coalition On Temporary Shelter. "Some have places to live but are low-income," including a number of seniors.
"This is sister Chris," Ed says, pointing to a woman sporting a jaunty striped cap. "She always wants her coffee with cream and sugar. One day she’s gonna surprise me." A middle-aged man named Anthony thanks Ed for the coffee and reveals, "I’m going to Hawaii," then confides in a stage whisper, "I have my summer house in Detroit."
It’s been "humbling"
Dorian sets a box on the sidewalk beside the food table. "I’ve got some pants and shirts I want to give out," he says, sparking a flurry of activity. Joe greets each person in line with, "Good morning, good morning," occasionally adding, "Go Irish!" Ann immediately counters, "Go Blue!"
Postulant Andrew, who hails from California, south of Palm Springs, looks cold and is cold. He chose St. Al’s as one of his ministries because "it would push me to my limits and challenge me." So far, "It’s been a humbling experience. We have a lot to learn from people on the streets." After three weeks at this, he says, "People are starting to look familiar. I just don’t know their names yet. All are needy, some not as much as others. Some people we give more than two sandwiches because of the way they’re living."
A hand-written note on the window of the van reads, "God never promised us a convenient life." On this stretch of sidewalk, at least for a moment, the cold and the cares are forgotten.
The philosophy of ministry is obvious: Joy is contagious. Pass it on.
Help and hope
"They’re so happy to see us, so thankful," says Ann, explaining why she’s here every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. You’re sharing more than coffee and sandwiches, says Dorian. "The biggest thing you share with them is love. It makes them hopeful. People need to be loved."
Each coffee customer receives a special greeting. "I like that smile," Ed tells an older woman. "Keep smilin’!" When people need to talk, he leans in and listens intently, responding with a few quiet words or a pat on the shoulder. Everyone who wants one gets a hug.
An hour after they started, St. Al’s volunteers have dispensed eight gallons of hot beverages and distributed 150 sandwiches. Dorian picks up the boom box as his colleagues fold the table and pack the leftover toiletries.
"You guys ready to blow this pop stand?" Ann asks.
"Good job today," Dorian says. "God bless."
Going to the people
"It’s a form of community," Mike Carsten says of the van ministry that serves hundreds on the streets of Detroit. "People in line know each other and we know them."
As Director of Neighborhood Services for St. Aloysius Parish, Mike coordinates this and other outreach efforts that rely on committed benefactors and devoted volunteers. Several years ago when St. Al’s lost its Community Center to downtown renewal, the parish adopted an ad gentes style of service, taking the programs to the people. A bicycle cart ministry spearheaded by Br. Al Mascia brought warm food, drink and seasonal clothing to the poor and homeless. Today the carts serve more than 200 each Wednesday at Capitol Park.
Other volunteers prepare and deliver breakfast to seniors in low-income housing. Mike’s wife, nurse Kathleen Carsten, coordinates a Health & Wholeness Ministry with a special outreach to the elderly. Br. Michael Radomski is part of a backpack brigade that addresses the basic needs of the homeless and mentally ill. "They go into alleys where a car and police won’t go," Mike says.
Obviously, connecting those in need with food, clothing and shelter are the top priorities. Ending their isolation is another. "One of the reasons we’re out there is to be in community and relationship," Mike says. "From that point, trust builds. Once you’re trusted you can help."