Sunday, 18 November, will be the Second World Day of the Poor. Diane Smyth rsm was invited to help the Mercy world reflect on the underlying meaning of this day. Sr Diane writes:
is a large centre located in a former school building in the heart of St. John’s, Newfoundland, operated by two religious orders of women, the Presentation and the Mercy Sisters. It is a place where those who are made poor for many different reasons and in many ways may receive food, clothing, personal and medical care, dental care, and counselling; where individuals can have a shower, do their laundry, have their feet cared for by trained personnel. Most of all, the members enjoy the companionship of other men and women who may be in need themselves or volunteers who provide friendship, support and encouragement and who can take a beating in a card game! There is time and space for art, music and computer.
On Hallowe’en this year something interesting happened! Many people, young and old, dress d in costume to bring a Hallowe’en spirit to their school or workplace. A woman who worked near the Gathering Place dressed in costume as a hippy with long hair wig, dark glasses and sloppy dress. She had laid a few bags near the fence as she prepared to go to her job in a convent nearby. When she noticed a colleague of hers approach her she bent down a little so she would not be recognized and begged for cigarettes. The colleague hardly spoke to her, turned her back on her and walked away, saying “No, no cigarettes.” She did not realize who the “begger” was!
Might that encounter have been different had she known the true identity of the “hippy”? Does this story sound a little like the Gospel story of the Good Samaritan? It presents us with a sobering reflection: how do we treat and relate to the ”other”, especially the ones who are almost invisible and nameless in our society, the ones who look shabby, dirty or disheveled? The ones who beg at the entrance to the shop or on the sidewalk?
Many of those who go to the Gathering Place have so very little in every aspect of their lives. They are those on the edges of society and have hardly an identity card! For most of their lives they have grown up in need, disorder and displacement and have had no family, little education or skills, no stable dwelling place, don’t know where and how they will get food, clothing or shelter. Many suffer from psychological, mental and physical ailments, personality disorder, addiction, criminal record, interpersonal conflict or antisocial behaviours. As members of the Gathering Place (annual fee $3.00), they find care and response to many of their needs, all that I mentioned earlier. The majority of the members find in the Gathering Place “their place”. Some have learned how to send emails, surf the web, obtain good quality and clean clothing, have substantial meals with bread to take home, have space to play games, read, watch television, develop literacy skills, develop any artistic, creative or musical skills that they might have. Some have said that the Gathering Place has saved their lives, giving them a sense of belonging, of self-esteem, of dignity. Some even earn a few dollars from the occasional sale of their created products, like jewelry or art.
With the faithful leadership of a small number of dedicated staff and over 1,100 volunteers, the Gathering Place reaches out to each member and guest to provide for most of the needs of each person. At the Gathering Place the members find dignity, respect and love; at the same time the staff and volunteers are blessed in their commitment and generous love. Occasionally there may be eruptions of conflict and outbursts of anger among members but these are minimal in the total scheme of things. The members hold a certain loyalty and are protective of “their place”. For the most part each person is proud to be a member and enjoys the freedom , the space and the interpersonal encounters with other members, staff and volunteers. Most of these men and women are the ‘displaced’ persons of St. John’s and surrounding area but at the Gathering Place they have a place of love and care, a place where they are welcome, a place that becomes home for the few hours each day that they are there. As the harsh and isolating winter of the north Atlantic sets in, the Gathering Place will be even more important in their daily lives.
The Gathering Place has wonderful credibility and visibility in the local community and is well supported by many individuals, groups and organizations who represent the important outer circle of the caring and wider community. The whole circle of care, including every person or group involved, ensures that the Gathering Place is a beacon of light and hope at the centre of the St. John’s community and a model that challenges others to reach out to those men, women and children who live on the fringes and in need of the basics of life.
Kindness is wanted and needed so that no person is left outside a circle of care and compassion.
Messages to: Diane Smyth rsm – Leadership Team