Sermon on the Street: Free to Depend on One Another

Andre House guests lining up

A belated Fourth of July to everyone! We here at the Spes Unica blog hope and pray you had a blessed celebration of the birth of the United States. We continue today with one of our regular contributors, Fr. Eric Schimmel, C.S.C. , who checks in for us from André House in Phoenix. He helps us reflect more deeply on the holiday we just celebrated.

This week leading up to the 4th of July weekend, my perspective on the holiday has been very colored by the environment in which I live and work. All week people have been referring to the weekend as Independence Day weekend, and several people have asked me what I was doing for Independence Day. To celebrate the holiday, we at André House had a nice Mass outside at our transitional houses at 11:00 am. Nothing says holiday like an outdoor Mass in 110 plus degree temperature! Then we had a joyful potluck lunch. Finally, we served dinner for our guests at the Main building, serving over 500 plates.

Growing up in Pennsylvania, I was always very proud of the fact that the Declaration of Independence was signed in my home state. I used to love to read stories about the founding fathers of our country. After serving for a year and a half overseas in East Africa as a seminarian, and having the blessing of visiting a few other countries for various reasons, I do not take the freedoms that we enjoy in the United States lightly. I thank God for them, and I wish that more people enjoyed some of the liberties that we may take for granted.

That being said, the reality in which I live and work does not speak about Independence. On the one hand, many of the guests that we serve at André House struggle with various dependency issues. I sometimes hesitate to talk about addiction issues with homeless people because I do not like to add to the common stereotypes. I also know that a large percentage of the people we serve do not have those issues at all. But the reality is that many of our guests do struggle with their chemical dependency. Some are affected by addictions to alcohol, some to illegal drugs, and some to both. My experience is that these guests, our friends, still long for an independence day – a day when they will not feel the craving for their addictive substance, a day when they will not feel chemically dependent.

A guest marking his spot in line

To talk of a different kind of dependency, some days I struggle when I see our guests as they line up for our services putting some object in a square painted outside our building on the sidewalk to “reserve” their spot in line – even if this is technically not allowed. People line up or try to mark their spot hours ahead of time to have access to laundry, to take a shower, or to eat a meal. In the oppressive heat of Phoenix, I am not going to force someone to stand outside for hours in temps over 110 degrees to hold his/her spot in line to take a shower. Speaking of the heat, our guests also depend on us to have bottles of water to give to them to stay hydrated. (Thankfully many donors recognize this dependency and have donated the water we need.) “How can we create and maintain an environment that respects the dignity of the people here, while being fair and making sure everyone gets what they truly need?” That is a question that often lingers in my heart and mind. How can we transform such dependency on others into interdependence rather than just a dependency?

One lens that helps me is to see the truth of our interdependence as a whole. Sometimes I have found it helpful to point out to our volunteers or people in parishes I visit that our guests are like others in their dependency. For example, many guests share a type of chemical dependency very common these days, but usually not thought of in these terms because of how we use the phrase “chemical dependent.” Often this phrase is limited to those who use illicit substances or who abuse alcohol or legal drugs. But if we are honest with ourselves, when we have to take any drug to survive – heart medicine, blood pressure pills, etc. – even if we do so in the way prescribed without abusing the drug, we are dependent on those chemicals. André House is a very dependent organization too. Each day I am conscious of the way that we depend on generous benefactors and volunteers so that we have the resources that we need to serve our guests.

Spots marked in line for services at Andre House

Not all dependency is bad. In fact, many spiritual writers have spilled a lot of ink writing about the fact that we are completely dependent on God. We even have popular sayings such as, “Let go and let God.” In the end, we are all dependent on God for the air we breathe, for the miracle that we have a planet that has the perfect atmosphere for human life, and for so many other things. The whole economic system of division of labor means that I depend on farmers to grow my food, other people to make my clothes that I buy, others to make sure the utilities I use function properly, etc. The truth that sits in my soul this Independence Day weekend is that we all really do depend on each other.

So in the end, we are really dependent creatures – depending on God and depending on each other. If this really is the case, I am called to answer the question of how this awareness will lead me to live my life – knowing that others depend on me as I depend on them.

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