How Facing My Fear to Help the Homeless Changed My Life

Ron Vitale
Jul 31, 2016 · 7 min read

I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t want to go. A friend, who I hadn’t seen in 20 years, had posted on Facebook that she was volunteering at a church in Philadelphia for the Dining with Dignity event.

I reached out to her to see if there were any items that she needed and she wrote back to tell me that she needed socks. She and the other volunteers had put together small bags that contained socks and basic toiletry items. I went onto Amazon, clicked a few buttons, and ordered $38 worth of men’s and women’s socks. I felt better.

And then Dallas happened. The violence in our country has been building and it has seemed that every few weeks more anger than I had ever seen in America rose up and swallowed us all. First, the death of Alton Sterling, and then days later, Philando Castile’s girlfriend live streamed Philando’s being shot and killed by a police officer.

All of the anger and violence played out across major American streets and I had ordered some socks to help some people. I did my part, right? I ordered some socks to help the needy. Surely, I had cleansed myself of any white guilt by spending that $38, right?

But something changed in me after Dallas. I woke up and saw on CNN nurses and doctors standing in respect as the bodies of the slain police officers were brought into Baylor Hospital and I started to tear up. America fought against herself and I had ordered some socks.

That didn’t sit well with me so I reached out to my friend and asked her to send me more information about the event. She did and I learned that the church was only 20 blocks away from where I grew up. It was not in the best of neighborhoods and I struggled with whether I would go or not. I could easily blow it off and tell a white lie: I already have plans or that my kid had a “thing” that day, but I decided to push against my fear and go.

Why did I go to help?

I wanted to look people in the eye and serve them food. I wanted to show that, as a white male, it didn’t matter to me if they were white, black, Hispanic, or what their situation was, I wanted to show them respect and help feed them.

When I arrived, I volunteered to do whatever was needed. Didn’t matter if it was setup, serving, greeting, whatever. I arrived, saw my friend, gave her a big hug and noticed her surprise in her: “You came!” response. We hugged and all 18 of us got to work.

Several of the tables we set up for the event.

About an hour later we had set for more than 100 people and have salad, drinks, bread, baked ziti, meatballs and cake. When the doors open, people came in waves. Our job was simple: People would come in, sit down and we would serve them a hot plate of food. If they wanted to take food with them, we could package it up for them.

The temperature outside was dangerously hot, reaching 95 and high humidity. The heat index would be near 100 degrees. Inside the church, we had no air and we work straight through, getting people whatever they wanted.

Some people who sat down were quiet and reserved, will others surprised me, being more demanding than I had expected. I remember a young Hispanic woman come in with her daughter (who looked to be 6 or 7). I brought them a plate of food and my heart wrenched. I have two kids and seeing children come in with their mothers throughout the day was hard for me. I didn’t know their situation, where they lived, what they did to survive, but I could see on some faces the pain and struggle they had been through.

A few men came in and acted embarrassed, refusing to make eye contact with me. They stood frail, sweaty in their dirty clothes, with a pungent smell of body odor around them. I served one and all as did the other volunteers.

It hit me while I worked on how similar of a life I could have had — my mother and father divorced when I was 5 and we moved into my grandparent’s home. Without their help as my mother worked full-time, I don’t know what we would have done to get by.

When asked for extra food, I served out more food, but what truly hit home were the requests for tinfoil and plastic pages. Before several people left, they asked for another plate of food wrapped in tinfoil so that they could put them in a plastic bag and eat later. The same bags that I had dozens of at home were hot commodities for some I helped.

After 1 p.m., the church opened up its basement to give out clothes to the homeless and our doors closed. We stood there sweaty, tired, but fulfilled. One strangler, an elderly black man, came in and we served him a plate of ziti.

The rest of us grabbed our food and I took my plate, heading toward the back of the room. And then I stopped. I saw the other volunteers sit down with the elderly black man and I sat down at the same table as well. In my shame, I realized that my instinct was to be separated and to eat apart from the man, thinking that all of the volunteers would eat together in peace.

We all sat together, ate and laughed, telling stories. I went to start eating and the black man, low of voice, asked if we could say grace. We all bowed her heads and he said a traditional prayer, but added at the end: “And thank you Lord for these people who helped all of us today to feed us.”

I glanced over at him and saw the earnestness in his face. We all said “Amen” and ate. That ziti was one of the best plates of food I had ever had. We talked, I listened and drank the cold bottle water, listening to the great stories.

Joining in our conversation, the elderly black man (I never did get his name) told us a story about how Paul Simon and members of his band had put on a show for the local neighborhood a few weeks ago and I listened to his story. We broke bread together and we ate as a family.

The Dallas shootings and the deaths of Sterling and Castile far out of our memory. For a brief moment, we were a family, sitting and enjoying a simple meal.

Before the doors of the church had opened a few hours earlier, Deacon Phil had asked all of us to stand in a circle and hold hands. He said a short prayer but then asked each of us to tell us our name and why we had come. Time and time again, I’d hear another person say “to help,” “because I care” and when it came to me I said, “To help my friend whom I haven’t seen in 20 years.”

Deacon Phil listened to all of us and tied together the threads of our personal motivations for showing up that day. The stories were the same. We wanted to do something to help another because of a friend or a loved one. The bond of family lit the room and I had become part of something greater than myself. I didn’t just click a button of a website and gave $38 for socks, but I stepped out of my comfort zone, overcame my fear and showed up to help.

The only way I knew to solve a problem was to do something myself. To get my hands dirty, sweat, give of my time and to look others in the eye and to serve. One day of giving food to the homeless is not going to change the world, but I promised to come back for the October barbecue.

Sometimes it’s not the grand gestures that change the world, but the small ones. Giving a man pieces of tinfoil so that he can wrap up an extra plate of food and handing him a plastic bag, might seem so simple, but I heard his need, I listened to him and gave him, if only for a short while, comfort from the heat, food for his belly and cold drinks to quench his thirst.

I realized that there is no magical wand to save people or for government to solve all our problems. But at an individual level, in our own communities, each of us can make a difference. Not only did I go to help the homeless at the Dining for Dignity event, but I grew myself. I learned more about my own prejudices in not initially thinking to sit with the elderly black man or to push back against my initial desire to blow off the event and not show up.

We helped each other that day. All of us. And that’s what it’s all about isn’t it? To really see into someone’s eyes and to smile and be present with them as an equal at a table sharing a meal.

Made me think a lot about what’s going on in America and I know my path now. I found others who know so much more than I on how to help, but with an open mind and, God willing, courage, I want to volunteer again. I want to help.

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