Guest Column: Our homeless are more than statistics

Guadelupe, 19, and her younger sister, Giselle, 13, hold flowers to place on their father's grave. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
Guadelupe, 19, and her younger sister, Giselle, 13, hold flowers to place on their father’s grave last week following the death of German Mendoza Galicia. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

I’m sitting at my kitchen table. It’s Friday, Feb. 20. The temperature outside is in the teens, as it has been for the past several weeks. The sun is coming in through the window and the heat is on in the house. So I’m nice and warm.

Nonetheless, I am grieving. Let me backtrack a bit. 

For the past seven or so years, Orient Congregational Church, where I serve as pastor, has partnered with St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church in Greenport to run John’s Place Homeless Shelter on Tuesday nights. The guests, as we call them, are brought to St. Agnes Church by county bus at about 6 p.m. They are given dinner, offered clothing and, if needed, medical assistance and have a chance to take a nice, warm shower. At 7:15 p.m., some of the Hispanic men in the group (between 10 and 16 are chosen because they do not have jobs to go to early the next day) are transported six miles east to our church. At Orient Congregational, we give them snacks and Spanish language newspapers, show Spanish-language movies and provide a warm, comfortable place to sleep. In the morning, we cook a hearty breakfast for the men and walk them to the bus stop. They’re given lunches prepared by St. Agnes volunteers and bus tickets to head back west. Then the process is repeated that evening at another church.

We have gotten to know and love our guests. They call me “Mama.” I get hugs and sometimes even a peck on the cheek. Some of them have been coming for years. Others we see once or twice. They have shared their stories, their hopes and their dreams with us. Our homeless guests are not statistics – they are real people, God’s children, our brothers in Christ.

In early February, we had a new guest. His name was German. (Pronounce the “G” as an “H” and put the emphasis on the second syllable, as in Her-MAHN.) He was about 5 inches shorter than I am and spoke English quite well. He and I had a lovely conversation at the bus stop on Wednesday morning. He told me about his children, his parents and his belief in God. He wanted to go back to Mexico in about five years, he said.

The climate there is much warmer and he would live well on the money he had planned on earning here.

A few hours ago, I received an email from the person in charge of John’s Place at St. Agnes. German was found this morning, frozen to death. He had been in a garage on Second Street in Greenport while the temperature outside was in the single digits.

Many thoughts are running through my head. Why do I have food, shelter, an education and a few dollars in the bank while others do not? I am reminded of the words of Luke 12:48 — “Everyone to whom much is given, of him will much be required.”

Are we doing enough? Are the abundant resources of the world being shared fairly? Is there more that we can be doing? I have no answers.

There are many reasons for homelessness. Alcohol problems, drug problems and mental health problems are among those reasons. Family problems, money problems and just plain bad luck are additional reasons. How many people reading this are but one paycheck away from financial disaster?

The guy on the sidewalk who reeks of alcohol has a story. So does the woman pushing a shopping cart along the street, talking to herself. Those men in front of the 7-Eleven stores in Southampton and Farmingville, waiting for work, have stories as well.

Maybe I can start carrying a few dollars in my pocket in case anyone needs me to buy lunch. Perhaps I can write the phone numbers of John’s Place and Maureen’s Haven on little cards and put those cards in my purse. And possibly, just possibly, I can start being a little less judgmental. How about you?

The Rev. Dr. Ann Van Cleef is a pastor of Orient Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Orient. She and her husband, Robert, coordinate an interfaith team of volunteers who, together with volunteers from St. Agnes Church, house homeless people on Tuesday nights each winter.