My church is one of several dozen local congregations participating in a social ministry serving Charlottesville’s homeless population: PACEM (“People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry”). Each winter, these churches open their doors to the homeless, rotating weeklong shifts to provide food and shelter to 20-40 homeless men. For the men, PACEM provides the basics that anybody reading this probably takes for granted – a safe, warm place to sleep, a hot meal, laundered clothes, and a shower. Beyond these basics, it also provides the men with something more intangible but no less important than food and shelter – an acknowledgment of their humanity.
A few of the men might be recognizable as the panhandlers that we occasionally bump into around town, but most are not. Many of them have jobs, although they obviously earn less than a living wage. Their education level varies, but most have at least a high school diploma or G.E.D., and a few have college degrees. Many struggle with addictions or other mental health issues. The one common denominator, apart from not having a place to call “home”, is that they are all used to being invisible.
Some have their invisibility thrust upon them. These are the men who look the part of the homeless – the panhandlers, the ones who seek shelter under bridges, in illicit campsites, or in abandoned buildings. The ones like the man who was found dead a few years back behind the dumpster at my office building, laying in a bed of flattened cardboard boxes. We make them invisible by pretending that they aren’t there.
Others seek to be invisible because they don’t want to stand out. These are the men who have jobs, or at least want to have jobs. They may have found themselves homeless because of poor choices that they have made, or their situation may be due to circumstances beyond their control. Whatever the cause, they want something better for their lives, something normal. In the meantime, they don’t want to call attention to their situation.
Regardless of whether their invisibility is self-imposed or thrust upon them, when the bus drops them off at our church for dinner at 6:00 p.m., they are there. There is no hiding their existence or their circumstances. There is also no denying their humanity, and it is in acknowledging their humanity that those of us doing the serving receive as great a gift as we give.
I’ll be spending the night with our PACEM guests tomorrow night. While I will miss time away from home and family, I am grateful for the opportunity to put Matthew 25:40 into practice.