by Caroline Hauser, Living With Purpose Fellow ’11 -’12
I lived off-campus when I was a junior in college. One day, I came home to find a man cooking in my kitchen. With five roommates, it wasn’t unusual to see a stranger in my home, but this guy was quite a bit older than the usual friends- of-roommates. When I asked who he was, he told me he was contracted there to paint the house. I asked him for identification. He had no business card, no ID, and no painting supplies. I called the police and they picked him up about an hour later, just a few blocks away from my house. He was arrested and put in jail. I was subpoenaed to attend his hearing and, it turned out he’d just gotten out of jail two days prior to the break-in. When asked why he did it, he said, “I was hungry.” Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I had never lived in a place with extreme poverty. State College, Pennsylvania, the hometown of Penn State University, was ranked “Safest City in America” in a 2009 report from the Congressional Quarterly. (Needless to say, my move to New Orleans was both shock and awe-inducing.)
The man who broke in, David, was a war veteran. He had a history of crime, most of it involving food—theft at grocery stories, dining and ditching at restaurants, and, now, breaking and entering at the PSU women’s rugby house. He also had a history of mental illness. I lived in a house of 6 college-aged girls. He could have taken laptops, iPods, jewelry and credit cards, but all that he took was a chicken breast, a pork chop and a can of soup. (Side note: He never was able to eat this meal because I caught him in the middle of cooking. Clearly this is the edited version, if you’d like to hear all the absurd details, contact me, we’ll go to lunch.)
Curious about this man’s past, I did a Google search on his name. I found out his father was arrested on multiple counts of abuse, as well as various drug-related crimes.
I almost felt guilty for calling the police on David. When I’d share this feeling with others, they’d say, “At least he’s getting fed in jail.” When I found him, he seemed more afraid than I was. Knowing his background story, I can understand why. He was released from prison and given nothing. How, as a society, can we expect anything else from him other than to steal again in order to eat? With his background, it’d be difficult for him to get a job or to go back to school and, honestly, why would he want to do the hard work to get there when room and board in prison are free?
Three years later, I am an Episcopal Service Corps intern at Trinity Church, coordinating their Loaves and Fishes feeding ministry. The program feeds volunteer relief workers, low-income community residents, and homeless people throughout New Orleans.
Without the Episcopal Service Corps program, I never would have had the opportunities I’ve had this year to assimilate into such a diverse group of people, many of them having much in common with David, to provide them with a meal and a sense of humanity. There is no defining moment I can point to that helped me to decide I wanted to work towards social justice, but my experience with David definitely had influence on the decision. I was aware of homelessness and hunger, but his breaking and entering into my life humanized the issues for me in ways that I never could have imagined.
There are times when I become frustrated with my job, but the moment I feel like I’m not making a difference, something happens to remind me why I go to work every day. I feel so blessed to be able to, no matter what issues of injustice we may be facing as a society, reach across lines of race, class, poverty, education, and provide something as simple as a meal and a smile to one of God’s children.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Matthew 25:35-36