January 27, 2012

2012 Catholic Schools Week Supplement

‘We’re called to serve’: Lesson in empathy connects students to homeless people

Sophomore students at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis bow their heads as they are led in prayer by a homeless person in downtown Indianapolis. The reverent scene was part of an immersion program to help students learn about the suffering that homeless people experience each day. (Submitted photo)

Sophomore students at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis bow their heads as they are led in prayer by a homeless person in downtown Indianapolis. The reverent scene was part of an immersion program to help students learn about the suffering that homeless people experience each day. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Abby Wuensch realized how much she had changed when she saw a man on the street holding a sign that read, “Homeless. Need food.”

In similar situations in the past, the 16-year-old sophomore at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis would have looked past the man, believing that he had chosen to live on the streets, thinking that he was someone to avoid.

Yet this time, she and a friend approached the situation differently.

“We got him a piece of pizza,” recalls Abby, a member of St. Simon the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis. “I think he was in a state of shock when we did that, but I think he was thankful, too. I’ve had my eyes opened. I’ve learned that I shouldn’t be awkward around homeless people. I should give them a smile.”

Abby’s change in attitude came from an immersion program about homelessness that each of the 170 sophomores at Bishop Chatard High School has experienced this school year—a program started by Benedictine Sister Kathleen Yeadon, one of the school’s sophomore religion teachers.

Her idea to start the program developed last spring when the bishops in the United States decided that sophomore religion classes at Catholic high schools should focus on the Paschal Mystery, the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ.

“If the students don’t have an understanding of suffering, the Paschal Mystery wouldn’t make sense to them,” Sister Kathleen says. “So I thought the best way for them to experience suffering was to go into the inner city and encounter people who suffer. The whole purpose was to try to give them an understanding of what it is like to be homeless.”

A humbling moment

The program exposed the students to real-life situations they had never experienced.

They stood and slogged through a pouring rainstorm at the American Legion Mall in downtown Indianapolis—a place where homeless people can be found during the day.

They met a homeless person named Stanley, who shared his life story filled with mistakes, told them to stay in school then led them in prayer, asking God to keep the students safe and let them realize their blessings.

They walked through a shelter with homeless people, ate lunch with them and listened to their stories. They visited a room inside a shelter where everything the homeless people had in their lives fit into a plastic container.

“It’s a humbling room,” recalls Nick Rulong, an 18-year-old senior at Bishop Chatard High School who helped Sister Kathleen coordinate some of the trips to the areas where homeless people lived. “It makes you think about everything you have in your life, and how unfortunate some people are. Since then, if I see a homeless person, I’ll give them something. Seeing that room keeps me grounded. It makes me think about how small my problems are.”

The experience also added substance to what Nick and the other students have been taught about service at the archdiocesan high school for the Indianapolis North Deanery.

“We’re called to serve,” Nick says. “We’re supposed to serve God first, others second and then ourselves.”

‘Christ comes in many disguises’

It’s a message that Sister Kathleen was able to bring to life with the help of about 25 social service agencies that work to help homeless men, women and children—including the archdiocese’s Holy Family Shelter, Cathedral Soup Kitchen, St. Vincent de Paul Society and several parishes.

“Each time they came, the students really worked hard helping to make casseroles, making fruit salads or making meals we would freeze for later,” says Margie Pike, director of the Cathedral Soup Kitchen. “I think it was a great experience because it was really hands-on.

“Many students have preconceived ideas about the poor. Most of them are surprised at how nice and polite they are. The students also see the struggles of the people. We always talk here about St. Benedict and how he always said to welcome all as Christ. We tell them that Christ comes in many disguises.”

That lesson has even changed the attitude of Bishop Chatard teachers who have helped Sister Kathleen with the program.

“It was very real for me,” says Abby Funk, who teaches English and theater at the school. “Every time I would see someone on the side of the road, there was a frustration—‘Yeah, they’re homeless. Why don’t they get a job?’ Then we went to the Central Library, and it was busier than any library I’ve ever been in. I talked to the librarian. She said the homeless people don’t have the resources we have at home—the computers to do resumés, the clothes for interviews.”

Funk then shared the main benefit of the immersion program for her. “It made me see the human dignity in everybody. It’s made me smile at people. I recently saw a homeless man. I said, “Hello. How are you?’ His face just lit up, and he said, ‘I’m fine. You have a blessed day.’ He didn’t ask for anything.”

‘Against incredible odds’

That connection, the understanding of human suffering and the appreciation of human dignity were the goals that Sister Kathleen sought for the sophomore students.

“One of the big things we worked on was not judging people,” she says. “Overall, I’d say it was an incredible experience for them. They got to do something outside of their normal world. And they encountered people they would never meet. Even when we stood out in the rain, we didn’t stop. It added to the experience of how we were connected to the people who are homeless.”

One more connection stands out to Sister Kathleen, making her smile as she shares it.

“I was hoping for them to see how people don’t give up, how people can go against incredible odds and overcome them. We saw how good came out of suffering. They encountered a man who had been homeless and a street person for years. Now, he has a lawn care business, he’s getting married and he helps the homeless.

“I think they definitely saw the connection between people’s passion, the love of God and how God is calling them.” †

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