Our PACEM coordinator has done a great job of orchestrating the many dozens of volunteers to cover the three shifts of the program every night for two weeks: (1) dinner (buying, preparing, and serving), (2) activities (mainly a ministry of presence – simply being there with the men for a few hours after dinner – talking, watching tv, playing cards, etc.) and (3) staying overnight and setting up breakfast the next morning. Although I was on the third (overnight) shift, I arrived a bit early, with my four kids in tow, to spend some time with the men.
My kids wanted to be there – PACEM’s been going on for a week at our church, and they’ve been there a couple of times already. My wife is coordinating laundry efforts for the two-week session so has been checking in almost daily, and there’s also this thing about us feeling the need to be at the church whenever the doors are open…. Anyway, it wasn’t the kids’ first experience with the men. They watch tv with them, keep score during their card games, and share in the plentiful snacks and hot chocolate that is made available. Last year one of the men showed them some magic tricks – they were disappointed that he’s not one of our guests again this year. Some of the men really seem to enjoy their presence. The innocence of childhood isn’t something that most of them get to see too much of, I imagine.
After a couple of hours, we bundled up the kids and my wife took them home. Lights out wasn’t until 11:00 pm, but by 10:00 most of the men were already asleep in their cots or headed that way. My Dad and I watched the rest of a movie with the few remaining nightowls, shut things down at 11:00, did some prep work for breakfast the next morning, and were in our sleeping bag by 11:30.
The alarm on my cell phone went off at 5:00 a.m., and I wasted no time getting up and out to the Fellowship Hall where the men were staying. Their official wakeup call wasn’t until 5:45 a.m., but I knew from my overnight shifts the last couple of years that there would be some who were already awake, up and on their second or third cup of coffee. Fortunately I hadn’t botched the coffee again this year. Last year I had filled up the 50-cup pot with water and placed the foil packets of coffee in the filter, so all the PACEM staffer would have to do was open the packets, pour the coffee into the filter, and plug it in. He plugged it in, but didn’t realize that the foil packets hadn’t been opened yet. Whoops. Coffee doesn’t exactly brew when it’s still in the foil packet. Imagine having to tell several dozen homeless men who were eagerly lined up at the coffee pot that it held 50 cups of hot water and that it was going to take another hour for the coffee to brew. Fortunately I had been able to scrounge up enough instant coffee to make do, but I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice.
Sure enough, a half dozen were already up and about. The coffee was flowing, Dad and I brought out the pastries, milk and orange juice, and the men startled cycling through the line. A few wolfed down some food, grabbed the sack lunch that had been prepared for them, and headed off into the pre-dawn dark. Some had jobs to clock into. Others may have just been anxious to hit the streets.
Not all were as eager to leave. For many of them, the next stop would be the Salvation Army, which offered a hot breakfast, and after that they might seek the warmth of the downtown library. After a day spent there, or in the park across the street, they would convene once again at the PACEM intake center, to start the process again.
From a distance, it’s easy to be judgmental about these men. It’s considerably less so once you have spent time with them, learned their names, traded small talk, played a round of spades, or stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them at the bathroom sink while brushing your teeth.