For over a year and a half, I’ve worked at an organization in San Francisco called, St. Anthony’s. At first, I was a full time employee and now, part-time.
A well-known entity in the City, St Anthony’s is most recognized for providing meals to those who are hungry – every day, 365 days a year. I work as Volunteer Coordinator on the dining room floor, where I assist in moving approximately 45 volunteers (needed every day), through the dining room in the 3.5 hours we are open, feeding as many people as possible. On average, we provide 2300 meals every day.
Reverend Fred Rogers tells a story about an ongoing conversation he had with his mother, where, she reminds us that there would always be Helpers, on the sidelines, waiting. “Always look for the Helpers,” she’d say. “If you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.
I wrote about my experience working at St. Anthony’s when I first started back in 2018. I still feel the exact same way, but with even more love and appreciation of the work we do, as well as absolute admiration for the dedication of my colleagues, who work endlessly as Helpers.
Yesterday, Christmas day, as I drove and walked to and from work at St Anthony’s, I noted the countless tents and homeless people on the streets, especially in the Tenderloin. It seems especially noticeable during the holiday season, even though it’s always present. Along with the homeless issue, there are serious addiction and mental health problems that are very visible and at times, almost tangible. This is life in a big city and San Francisco, especially, is facing a monumental problem. Frenetic, at times violent, loud, unsettled, and sometimes scary, it can be a very overwhelming experience on the streets of San Francisco. One thing is very clear – there are a lot of hurting people out there.
But, as I made my way through the City very early in the morning, I saw homeless people, hugging their homeless friends outside their tents on the sidewalk, wishing them a Merry Christmas. A man, sitting next to his whole life in a shopping cart, on the curb, wearing a Santa hat, singing Christmas carols. People lining up to get food at other establishments that were offering meals. A man sleeping on the sidewalk next to where I parked my car, wishing me a good day and, “Merry Christmas,” as if it were normal, that he was sleeping outside on a cold, rainy morning.
The lesson in witnessing these acts is simple – all of these things that were taking place on the street, were also playing out in warm, fire-lit homes, all around the world. I find the hope of human resiliency, comforting.
In a beautifully decorated dining room, with festive tablecloths, centerpieces, lights, wishes for a Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas hung on the walls – we did what we do best, and provided over 2000 meals, complete with cheesecake.
The thing is, this scene also didn’t just play out at St. Anthony’s. This same scenario played out all over the nation and the world. And, as with St. Anthony’s, this happens not just on Christmas, but, every single day. In New York, London, India, Nigeria, Japan, Italy – everywhere you go, there are those in need, those hurting, those who need humanity to notice them. And, everywhere you go, there are Helpers.
So many things plague our world right now, but, just look to the sidelines –
Mass shootings – look for the first responders.
Natural disasters – look for the donations of food, clothes, and medicine.
A bomb drops in Syria on innocent civilians – look for the White Helmets.
Ravaged Latinos crossing the desert with no water or food – look for the people who leave water and food in open spaces, at the risk of spending their life in prison for having compassion.
Children caught in an underwater cave – look for the divers.
A woman is lost hiking in Hawaii – look for fellow hikers who set out to find her – and do.
Thousands of people held in migrant camps around the world – look for the doctors, the religious leaders, the volunteers.
Fire victims who’ve lost everything – look for those who risk their lives to stop the fires from spreading, offer shelter, and food – to complete strangers.
Hungry people – look for the food donations, that are plentiful and vast.
Helpers are everywhere. They don’t ask for praise, make a big deal out of what they do, and they certainly don’t care what anyone thinks. They just do what they are called to do, what feeds their souls, what balances them, what provides hope, what means something, what is right.
Helpers can’t help, but help.
I think helping is like saying, I care about you. I see you. You matter. I love you.
Society has a callous way of looking the other way – because we are uncomfortable, but more, we are too afraid to see ourselves in those who are in need. Because, truth be told, any one of us can end up on the street, addicted, mentally unstable, no home, caught up in a calamity, and feel as if we are all alone in the world, with no one to help us. No human is immune to becoming victim to the dark side of this thing we call life.
With that thought, I believe we can all agree that the world feels incredibly dark right now. I am struggling to find some semblance of calm, especially living here in the states. Everything feels frayed, incoherent, discombobulated, and at times, frightening. I feel as if we are allowing ourselves to become our worst fears – like a scary movie – that hears our thoughts, and then becomes a physical entity of those thoughts – sort of like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghost Busters.
In all seriousness though, in all that is wrong in the world, there is still one steadfast. Love. So corny, right? So stereotypical – oh look, the Christian theologian is writing about L.O.V.E. But, really, what else have I got? What else is true? What is Jesus’s most important message, but, to simply love one another, as God loves us. This message, above all else, I believe, is still relevant. We all know what gets in the way of this sentiment. We don’t love each other very well, but God – She loves us enough to make up for our lackluster effort to truly love each other. Thank goodness.
A quote that is attributed to Archbishop Desmund Tutu is, “We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.” Does that mean Hitler might be greeting us as the pearly gates? Or, what about Jeffrey Dahmer? Sadaam Hussein? Your drug addicted relative who steals from family members to get their fix? You get my drift. According to the Archbishop, they are loved. Just as much as the Helpers, the good folks. The unsavory, the despicable, the “sinners” – God has their backs too. Which I appreciate.
For me, the dining room at St. Anthony’s is a microcosm of all that is right, all that is painful, and all that is good in the world. On Christmas day, like every day, it was full of Helpers and full of love. People laughing, eating, talking. Volunteers taking a bit of extra time to say Hello, to guests – getting them a glass of water and ensuring they were OK. Attentive staff members, working with anyone and everyone who dines with us, meeting people where they are. This is love, practiced 365 days a year, in the form of a well-made meal, at an organization made up of Helpers.
All you need is love? Perhaps. I am convinced that if we are to survive this massive shift we are experiencing on our planet right now, that the one constant that will save us from ourselves, is love. God insists on love. So we should too. And in the midst of this immersive chaos, we really don’t have to look too far and for too long to find the Helpers and to find that love. Because, really, love actually is all around.
Karen Leslie Hernandez is a theologian and interfaith activist. She has published with several media outlets including the Women’s United Nations Report Network, The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue/Studies, the Interfaith Observer, and she is the only Christian to have published an ongoing Op-Ed Column with OnIslam out of Cairo, Egypt. Some of her past gigs include designing and teaching an Interfaith Dialogue workshop with Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, as well as spending three years working with United Religions Initiative, in several different positions. An Over-Achiever, Karen has not one, but two theological master’s degrees – one from Andover Newton Theological School, the other from Boston University School of Theology. She did her BA at Wellesley College, graduating with honors in her major, Peace and Justice Studies, where she wrote her thesis on Al Qaeda and their misuse religion for political gain. Karen currently lives in California, works at two faith based non-profits, teaches workshops throughout the Bay Area, is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree at Claremont School of Theology, and she is also a certified domestic violence advocate.