The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
As soon as I started my second-semester classes, I was informed of the many hours of service I would have to complete. Because my college is a Franciscan university, I kind of expected it, but I felt very overwhelmed by the pressing requirements. I was informed of a service opportunity by a guest speaker in my Honors Philosophy class, and it seemed like a promising way to both do well and fulfill my service requirements, so I signed up.
At 8:00 a.m., on the first day of spring break, I had a bag packed and was outside of the campus religious center ready to get on a bus and travel in the opposite direction of home where my peers and I would be working a minimum of eight hours a day at the St. Francis Inn in East Kensington, Pennsylvania. We would be preparing meals, cleaning, organizing clothing, socializing with guests and doing many other things.
It is hard to put into words what East Kensington is like, but if you ask a Pennsylvania native, they’ll tell you to avoid it like the plague. It was called the “Walmart of Heroin” by the New York Times in 2018, and my peers and I were able to see very clearly why. East Kensington is an area of Pennsylvania plagued by addiction and homelessness and known for its “open-air narcotics market.”
St. Francis Inn Ministries was founded by two Franciscan brothers to live among and serve the poor and homeless. They rely heavily on volunteers from the surrounding community and from universities like mine.
While my service trip was hard work, it was incredibly eye-opening and educational. Here are some of the lessons I learned through my work.
1. Give. Just give.
I am very lucky to have what I have. I have been able to attend private schools my entire life. I have been blessed with a wonderful, supportive family and a home to go to when I need to, and I have access to countless resources that have gotten me where I am today.
The people I served in Kensington either had none of the aforementioned or were very close to none.
I was consistently in a position where I had a surplus of things to give, so why not? If someone asked for extra anything, I gave it, unless I legitimately didn’t have anymore.
So, give. Give your time. Give your kindness. Just give.
The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.Matthew 25:40
2. You get to close the curtain.
When my friend and I were unpacking our luggage after arriving, we both looked out the window. We saw a man openly shooting intravenous drugs on the street.
I immediately told her to look away, and I closed the curtain.
Later that evening, we were having a group reflection, and we both recognized how significant that small moment was. We had the privilege to be able to close the curtain when we didn’t want to see what was outside, but others live without curtains.
Acknowledging this was not easy, but understanding that we were able to leave when things got hard speaks to why we were there in the first place. Yes, we had the chance to use our spring break to enjoy time with family or maybe a vacation (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but instead, we understood the need for a community and took action to help.
The more privilege you have, the more opportunity you have. The more opportunity you have, the more responsibility you have.Noam Chomsky
3. It takes a Simple “Hello” to make someone feel like a person again.
How many times have you walked past a homeless person and pretended like they didn’t exist?
This type of interaction, or rather lack thereof, is not uncommon at all. In fact, only 3% of Americans speak to homeless people when they see them. Many people even dislike homeless people, sometimes going out of their way to yell at them or hurt them.
How would you feel if people walked past you day after day, pretending you didn’t exist? What would you feel if people went out of their way to harm you or scream at you without provocation? You would feel like an outsider, almost inhuman.
At the Inn, we were taught the importance of simple conversation. A simple greeting and respect can impact someone’s entire life, even if it is not reciprocated.
It won’t kill you to say hello to someone down on their luck.
It is more blessed to give than to receive.Acts 20:35
4. serve, don’t judge.
Like I said before, most of the guests we served were down on their luck. Many were homeless or struggling with addiction. Because of the heavy drug use in East Kensington, it was common to see open sores from infected track marks. Some guests were wearing dirty clothes. One night, a guest overdosed in the dining room and was taken in an ambulance.
Although most of these things were a bit shocking to see, it is important to learn that it was not our place to judge, but rather our duty to serve. It’s okay to process what is happening around you, but ultimately it is not your place to critique others for situations they didn’t ask to be in.
And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.Hebrews 13:16
5. “It’s less efficient, but it’s more franciscan.”
When we were learning how the Inn would serve meals, Father Michael, one of the brothers, said we would serve each guest as if they are in a restaurant, rather than a typical cafeteria-style soup kitchen. He said, “It’s less efficient, but it’s more Franciscan.”
This statement has stuck with me since I left. It’s worth it to put more time or effort into something to make someone else feel happy or welcome.
Do all you can to preach the gospel and if necessary use words.Francis of Assisi
6. you missed it by that much.
An important discussion my group had one night involved Father Michael coming to our apartment and telling us the stories of various guests.
He ended it by telling us that we missed being in their same situation by a millimeter. It takes one event to spiral someone’s entire life. It was a good lesson in empathy.
You have no idea where you’d be if your parents struggled with addiction, your family got evicted from your apartment, or your parents lost their jobs, so, feel for those in that situation and help.
Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.1 Peter 4:10
7. Your Community is your life.
The highlight of my service trip was witnessing the sense of community in East Kensington. These people who have almost nothing were giving extra food to each other, playing with each other’s families, and talking with each other’s tables.
It was a good lesson about the importance of community. Treat your friends like your family. Keep them close, rely on them, and love them.