Fr. Eric Schimmel, C.S.C., checks in with his latest post on his ministry with the poor and the homeless at André House in Phoenix. This month he shares with us a potpourri of stories from André House, including one about an 86-pound pumpkin and another about being "given the bird," that help us enter into this graced season. (If that does not pique your interest, we do not know what will!)
I find that November at André House is a month with its own transitions. Although we have hundreds of volunteers help us at André House every year – remember that we need about 25 people every night for the soupline, six nights a week – we also have our fair share of regulars. As one may guess, with a ministry in Phoenix, some of our volunteers are "snow birds" from the North who spend several months in our more comfortable "winter" climate. Usually by mid-November most of the snow birds have returned to once again regularly volunteer here.
November also brings the beginning of the major donation season that starts before Thanksgiving and continues into the New Year. Yes, that does mean financial donations, but also many donations that the accountants would classify as "in-kind" donations.
This November, one "in-kind" donation came in the form of the Great Pumpkin. No, not the one from the famous Charlie Brown story, but a great big pumpkin weighing 86 pounds. Fortunately the generous people who offered us this giant squash asked whether we could use it rather than just dropping it off. They came on a Saturday when I had the porter shift that entails watching over the parking lot and receiving donations. Honestly, I did not know what we would do with an 86 pound pumpkin. So, before accepting the donation, I asked my staff member, Alicia, who coordinates the Sunday soupline if she thought she could use it. The answer was an enthusiastic "yes." So that Sunday we added the 86 pound pumpkin to the chili that we served on our soupline.
If asked what comes to mind first when you hear November, most of us would say Thanksgiving. For us, that also means turkeys. We need a lot of turkey as we serve a turkey pasta dish on our soupline every Monday. I can also assure you that we receive all the turkeys we need for the entire year in the span of about 3 weeks around Thanksgiving. One parish had a goal of donating a ton of turkeys – and pretty much came close to reaching that goal. This is one time when we are OK with people giving us the bird as we know we will use those birds to feed thousands of meals throughout the year.
Finally, November in our Catholic tradition is a time for remembering our loved ones who have passed away. One sad reality is that not all people who die have family or friends around to care for them, nor to arrange for a funeral. At André House we have a ministry of helping to bury the dead. About every two months we take a turn going out to the cemetery owned by the county where they bury the people whose bodies have not been claimed. We pray for each person individually in a ceremony usually only attended by the chain gang from the local prison who are there to help place the caskets over the graves, to pray, and then to lower the people down into the ground.
Every year, on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, we go out to the cemetery to hold a large ceremony for all those buried in the past year. During this candlelight vigil attended by André House friends and volunteers as well as people from local parishes and the community, we read the names of those who have died. All who attend are given a flower to place on the grave of anyone they choose. Of course, it is hard to find the actual graves in the night because most graves are only marked by a small, round marker about three inches in diameter.
This year as we prayed I remembered in a special way friends who were guests at André House who died recently like Hershey and Cecilia. I also remembered friends who volunteered for years at André House like Jim and Gloria who also passed away recently. I pray that they all now rest in the peace of the Lord, the God who chose to be born in a stable and who taught us how to love and to serve and not to judge by appearances but by what is in the heart.
Remembering all of these things that happened in November, a month of Remembrance, I see that the common theme to it all is gifts. The people who died whom we remember were gifts to us, even though we may not have known some of them personally. The people who come to serve at André House, those coming to use our services, as well as those who come to drop things off for us are all gifts. Now we enter into a season in which people will search for the perfect gift for the people they love. In the midst of that searching and focus on gifts, may we never lose sight of the most precious of all gifts: the gift of our Lord and His presence among us still.