Nomads in This World

Author: Fr. Eric Schimmel, C.S.C.

Fr Eric Schimmel, CSC saying mass

Happy Labor Day to one and all! It seems only providential on this Labor Day that our regularly scheduled post comes to us from Fr. Eric who serves the homeless, and often jobless, at André House in Phoenix, Ariz. As in the past, Fr. Eric has produced a reflection for us that is a real witness to his labor of love on behalf of the poor there. Be nourished.

When André House started, we did not have our main Hospitality Center. Instead, we only had a rented house on Polk Street. Therefore, when people donated food to us and we began serving an evening meal, the food was cooked all at the one house and then loaded on trucks, which transported the food and volunteers to the area affectionately called “the zone” where people who were homeless slept.

Since the early 1990s, we have had the luxury of a main building with an industrial kitchen, large dining room, dishwashers, etc. That is where we serve over 550 plates a night on our soupline as well as other services. The most important ministry, however, is to try to be present to the guests.

Main Hospitality Building at André House

Although we serve an evening meal 6 days a week and an organization across the street from us serves lunch every day, we still see other well-meaning groups come down with cold water, food, or maybe even clothes or other things for our guests that they serve out of their cars and trucks in our neighborhood.

Different people have different opinions about these unofficial groups coming to serve on the street. Personally, I don’t mind losing “business” every now and then. It would be nice to know ahead of time so that we don’t have 200 extra servings of chili and rice leftover because the trucks showed up after we had all the ingredients cooking on the stove. Still, overall, I want to encourage people reaching out to our brothers and sisters who need a hand. I also am quite slow to condemn others for doing what we did as a nascent organization.

I see these groups most often when I have a porter shift on Saturday – the shift in which one watches over the parking lot, talking with guests, receiving donations, and helping volunteers find where they need to go. As I watch these groups park on the street and set up their wares, I also notice how the guests react to them. I am sorry to admit that I have thought of a flock of birds or of a herd moving toward food, but I don’t like thinking in those terms because the last thing I want to do is dehumanize our guests.

Recently we had an ice cream truck pull into our parking lot on a Thursday morning just after we had opened up and while I was celebrating Mass outside. The driver parked just as we were starting the readings. I first thought that maybe he was lost. Then, I thought maybe that he needed to get clothes from our clothing closet because I figured driving an ice cream truck does not pay well. But when a staff member went over to greet him and he stayed in the truck, I had the uncharitable and pessimistic thought that this guy was here at 9:40 am when it was already over 100 degrees just to sell ice cream. This was perfect timing as it was about the time of the month when many of our gests would be getting their checks.

André House

After the staff member talked with the man, he drove out of our parking lot, which was good … until I noticed that he parked just outside our gate and turned on the music for his ice cream truck. Instead of an Alleluia before the Gospel, all one could hear was the truck’s song beckoning all to come for ice cream. This was the first time I had something akin to “Popeye the Sailor Man” playing in the background when reading the Gospel.
As it turns out, the man was not there to make a buck at all. He was having issues with his truck and wanted to hand out the melting ice cream for free to the guests. He also turned off the music when we asked, and we let him plug his freezer into our outlet to try to save at least some of his ice cream. That taught me a lesson about judging others.

When the music started playing on the truck, the guests who had been waiting for clothes or laundry all got up and made their way to get their share of the confections. Nomads, I thought.  Here we are, in the Arizona desert, and these guests are like nomads searching for something to cool them down. Yes, we had offered them all a cold bottle of water, but these nomads saw something tastier. I couldn’t blame them.  

Ice Cream Truck at André House

Here in Phoenix, we talk about “snow birds.” That usually refers to people with homes in places with snow who migrate to spend winters here. But we also have homeless people who are snow birds – those who try to get out of the desert heat in the summer while looking for labor positions, many of which are outside. Can you imagine being a roofer when the average high is over 110 degrees? 

In the end, I wonder whether we are all nomads. We wander through this life, searching for the things we need. That definitely entails physical necessities like food, clothing, and shelter. But every year around Labor Day there is a great migration of nomads heading back to school seeking an education. People migrate for job opportunities, or to be with a loved one, or for many other reasons.I wonder whether the migration of the nomads I see sometimes in “the zone” can be likened to the Israelites in the desert trying to find and take advantage of the manna that God provides – manna from heaven taking the form of food, cold drinks, or clothing coming into the neighborhood.

I ask myself what is the manna that I seek. Physical relief from the hot sun, relief from stress as volunteers graciously come to help, a deepening of relationships with God or with others all c Meditating on this, I question whether, when I find myself satiated in any way, I am willing to become a vehicle to bring necessary manna to others. I pray that God gives me the grace to answer yes. May God give us all the grace to find the manna we need, and to bring manna to each other.

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