Charitable work on the 16th St. Mall with bagged lunches, in order to discover that all men’s hearts are the same.

In Colorado, Gioventù Studentesca, GS, began four years ago. After a few years, I felt the need to propose charitable work to the kids. Americans are a generous people and volunteer work is a part of their culture. For this reason, schools normally require that their students have, as part of the scholastic curriculum, a certain amount of hours spent in an activity that would be in some way “giving back”: the idea is that society gives us a great deal and in some way we must contribute.

For this reason, it was difficult to figure out what kind of proposal would have been most adequate for the GS kids. It needed to be something that go beyond an exercise in civic virtue, and that would help them to love gratuitously as Fr. Giussani always taught us.

Looking around and seeing how the society of Colorado has been changing since the legalization of marijuana, which is attracting many people, among whom many homeless, we thought that it might be worth while to encounter them.

With a bit of ingenuity and enthusiasm, we went adventuring on the streets of Denver, looking for new friends.

The proposal was simple. One Saturday every month we meet at the supermarket with five dollars in hand. We roam the aisles and buy the ingredients for a bag lunch. In the kitchen of the parish we prepare burritos: flour tortillas filled with egg, sausage, vegetables and cheese. We put them in a bag with fruit, potato chips, cookies and water and then head off to the 16th Street Mall. It is a long pedestrian mall, a few miles long, in the center of Denver, a meeting place for the city with restaurants and locales, benches, tables for playing chess, and wide spaces for walking. It is also the place where street artists and hoboes meet up: here you meet every people of every shape and size, from the student to the entrepreneur with earphones giving long distance instructions to his secretary, from the musician to the drunk who yells at an invisible enemy, from protestors to couples strolling together, to our friends: the homeless.  

It is always a multicolored crowd, we dive in in groups of three or four. “Hi! Would you like a bag lunch? I’m Fr. Accu. What’s your name?” Some struggle to trust us. They don’t even want to say their name, which is often the only thing that they have left. But with some of them we begin a true dialogue, often intense and profound.

The people that we have met are extremely different the one from the other. There is the young man, Mark, a sixteen-year-old abandoned by his family, who just hopes to survive one more winter so that he can enlist in the army. Or, the strange couple formed by Luise, a man who feels like he is a woman, and his wife, Susan. They grew up in families that belonged to Jehovah’s Witnesses and were extremely rigid and oppressive. Living on the streets, even if difficulties abound, they feel free. They even told us that they would like to become catholic because they have found that there are always practicing Catholics who treat them with love and with freedom. There is Christopher, a friend who calls himself “Santa Claus”: he was waiting for the verdict in a trial in which he had declared himself innocent, but after the sentence we have not seen him again. Then, there is Victor, our atheist friend, who goes around speaking with everyone he can, trying to convince them that God does not exist. We discovered that he, as a young man, had negative experiences with the Church that made him become angry with God. He looks and us and says, “You all, on the other hand, are good people.”

In this charitable work, which is at the same time very simple and very dramatic, my kids are learning, above all, two things. The first was summed up perfectly by Steve: “At the beginning, I was afraid but then I discovered that everyone has the same heart. The homeless, since they have nothing to defend, help me to discover who I am.” The second thing was said by Robert: “What can I do when faced with their needs and their stories? I can’t fix anything, and, yet, I can begin to love them in a truer way.”

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