March 8, 2013

‘Hearts of service’

Operation Leftover effort shows desire of young adult Catholics to serve others

Andrew Costello, second from left, leads a prayer on the night of Feb. 21 as members of Operation Leftover take to the streets of downtown Indianapolis to provide food, clothing and conversation with people who are homeless. The group of young adult Catholics dedicated to helping the homeless is based at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. Costello prays with a man who is homeless, left, and two other members of the group, Michael Gramke, second from right, and Kellye Cramsey. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Andrew Costello, second from left, leads a prayer on the night of Feb. 21 as members of Operation Leftover take to the streets of downtown Indianapolis to provide food, clothing and conversation with people who are homeless. The group of young adult Catholics dedicated to helping the homeless is based at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. Costello prays with a man who is homeless, left, and two other members of the group, Michael Gramke, second from right, and Kellye Cramsey. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

(Editor’s note: This story is the first in a continuing series about the challenges that young adult Catholics face, and the contributions that they make to the archdiocese and the Church.)

By John Shaughnessy

Andrew Costello didn’t know what to expect when he made his unusual invitation to a woman holding a sign asking for food and assistance.

He certainly didn’t expect how the lives of people who are homeless—and even his own life—could be touched and transformed by a simple gesture.

The interaction between Costello and the woman happened after he attended a 7 p.m. Mass at St. John the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis. At the time, Costello was just starting his monthly effort of walking through downtown Indianapolis with young adult Catholic friends to distribute food and clothing to homeless people they would meet on the streets.

After he stopped to talk to the woman with the sign, he invited her to dinner with him and his friends. She said yes.

“It was a wonderful experience,” Costello, 28, recalls. “I decided that I would invite her to come to the State Fair and spend the evening with us on Tuesday. That also turned out to be a memorable experience, and several of my friends befriended Ruth.”

Costello didn’t see her again for 10 months until he picked up a friend who was visiting Ruth at the apartment complex where she was then living.

“I was excited to see Ruth and asked her about what she had been up to. In the 10 months since I had last seen her, she became married and secured a job, a vehicle and a place to stay,” Costello says. “That encounter was a defining moment in my ministry because I saw very specifically how God had used me to be an instrument of peace in this person’s life.

“Although I did not contribute anything to the meeting of her and her husband or her employment or vehicle, I know that God had provided for her, and that he had answered the prayers of myself and the young adults around me.”

The invitations to dinner are part of Costello’s outreach program called Operation Leftover, a program that reflects the tendency of young adult Catholics to be involved in volunteering.

Seventy-one percent of young adult Catholics volunteered within a year period, according to a 2010 survey by the Knights of Columbus and the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.

The importance of being present

Operation Leftover also reflects Costello’s desire to “be present” to people who are homeless.

“I’ve learned that just being present to people seems to have an impact on their lives,” says Costello, a member of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Indianapolis. “We provide food, clothing and fellowship for the people we encounter on the streets. We provide information about housing and programs. And we follow up on people to see how they’re doing.”

All those efforts were put into action when Costello and six other young adult Catholics walked along the streets of downtown Indianapolis on a wicked, wintry night in late February marked by sleet, freezing rain, gusting winds and bitterly cold temperatures.

When they found someone who was homeless, they offered food, gloves, woolen hats and bottles of water. They also spent time with the people who are homeless, talking, praying and laughing with them as if it were a comfortable spring evening instead of an icy, bone-chilling night.

“I think if the Gospel inspires our actions, we serve the poor and share the common humanity within all of us,” says Sarah Graves, 26, one of the members of the group that took to the streets that night.

“It’s just so important to not ignore the poor,” says Annie Hosek, 24, another member of the Operation Leftover effort. “Jesus never ignored the poor.”

Similar to the dinner invitations to people who are homeless, Operation Leftover began in 2010 in an unexpected way.

Costello was attending a get-together of the Frassati Society of Young Adult Catholics at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Carmel, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese. Ranging in age from 18 to 35, the Frassati members seek to “live a life of holiness in imitation of Christ.”

“They had a lot of food left over—hamburgers, hot dogs, chips,” Costello recalls. “I made a comment about it, and someone said I should just take the food to people in Indianapolis.”

So Costello packed up the extra food, took it home and refrigerated it. Then he went to a supermarket and bought subs, snacks and drinks. And he put everything in a cooler that he took to his job in downtown Indianapolis as a customer service representative.

“After work that Friday, I walked through downtown with the cooler,” he says. “If someone looked like they were down on their luck, I’d help them. I really enjoyed it.”

Later that same day, he told a friend about his experience, and the friend told him it could be one of his calls in life.

“I liked that idea,” Costello says. “The next weekend, St. Joan of Arc had a summer picnic. They had a lot of food left over. I saw it as another opportunity from God to do something. I took the food downtown, distributed it, and it went well. I started doing it monthly after that. I’d buy food, and other people gave me food.”

Friends lined up to help. Clothes were donated. Dinner invitations extended. Operation Leftover became a ministry for Costello.

“It’s marvelous what he’s doing,” says Father Rick Nagel, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish. “Andrew has encouraged so many young adults to help the homeless. The social justice teaching of the Church is so rich, and young people are drawn to that. They have hearts of service.”

Sharing of gifts

That desire to serve also shows in the parish’s Garden Door Ministry, a weekday effort from the door of the rectory to provide food, clothing, blankets and other help to the homeless.

“We serve 50 to 60 people a day,” Father Nagel says. “About 50 percent of our volunteers are young people. We work in two-hour shifts daily. Another crew comes in the early morning or the evening to make sandwiches for the homeless. It’s another way to live their faith.”

Costello views Operation Leftover as a key part of the faith-filled life he tries to lead.

“My faith keeps me going,” Costello says. “I’ve learned how God is behind the scenes, leading me. I’m serving the poor in a real way on the streets. And I can be a sign of hope for people in the workplace, too—showing God’s mercy to the people on the phone, to my co-workers and to the flourishing young adult population in the archdiocese.”

He shares one more story to show how that approach has touched his life.

“I was driving back from visiting my father in Ohio, and I arrived early at St. John’s before the 7 p.m. young adult Mass,” he recalls. “I decided to take a stroll down Capitol Avenue to see if I could find anyone in need. I encountered one gentleman who needed a blanket, and I gave him an extra blanket that I had.

“After the Mass had concluded, I took another stroll down Capitol to see if the man I had helped was alright. I saw him sleeping under the bridge near the Convention Center, and he was using my blanket.

“That moment was very powerful for me because I had seen first-hand how the sharing of my gifts made the life of someone else better in a real way.” †

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