Domestic volunteer and program associate Chanda Ikachana continues our Hunger Action Month reflections by sharing her experiences of befriending those who are homeless in downtown D.C. 

Over the past few months, I’ve volunteered with the Sant’Egidio community on their Friday night food-runs, a ministry to the homeless in the Dupont area downtown. Last week, our missioners-in-training were able to join us for this wonderful service. We all gathered at the Sant’Egidio offices, where we made sandwiches and pasta that we put in individual lunch bags with a piece of fruit and a bottle of water.

After the food preparation, Charlie Gardner, a member of Sant’Egidio who began the ministry in D.C. a year ago, explained the purpose of the food-runs to us. He reiterated that these evenings are about much more than the pasta and sandwiches we hand out. They are about relationships and being part of a culture of encounter. “Each Friday night, we gather to build a more human city,” he reminded us. Some of the folks we meet are certainly hungry for the food, but the most important thing may be that we recognize them and call them by name.

Sant’Egidio’s Charlie Gardner during the community meal after the food runs.

After reading a scripture passage together and ending with the Our Father, we split up into four groups. Each group took several lunch bags and headed off in different directions along whichever route we were assigned. We walked through the streets of downtown D.C., stopping to talk to people who are homeless and offering them food, and taking time to sit with them and just talk with them.

The kind of encounter I’ve had with the homeless through the Sant’Egidio Friday night food-runs is different from any other I’d had before that. I got the opportunity to actually interact with the homeless men and women I’d previously just pass by when around the city.

It’s heartbreaking to learn that sometimes all they want is just for someone to sit with them and listen, and have a conversation with them, and yet they are unable to find that. Everyone is too busy going about their business to spare a second to have a conversation with them.

There is much to learn from each individual you come across. Some of them are some of the most pleasant people you’ll ever meet, and some have been scarred by past experiences that make them suspicious of any person who wants to lend a helping hand. Some still are just happy to have someone to talk to that they go on and on telling you about this and that, and how they feel about such and such. It’s always amusing to listen to their stories, because listening to them, you realize that each person has a different story.

There’s Sandy, the once-lawyer who had immigrated to New York at a young age, and has now found herself in D.C.; there’s Carl who once owned a restaurant and is proud of what it used to be, and then there’s the proud military-veteran who wonders where the world is headed, and even Sam who still has his grandmother and visits her often in the nursing home, always so happy to share some of the wisdom she’s passed on to him. And who can forget Sue, the kind lady who asked us to pray with her and for her, and to pray for the city of Washington, D.C.

One man playing his guitar on the street didn’t want any food, but gladly stopped playing to talk for 20 minutes. While saying goodbye, he thanked them for what they were doing, and asked them to “give the next person as much love and attention as you gave me.”

Not only is there a hunger for food, there is also a hunger for friendship, for companionship, that needs to be fulfilled just as much as the hunger for food does.

Besides the opportunity to interact with all the people we come across, one other thing I enjoy about this ministry are the conversations we have after the food-runs. It seems like each person, after having this experience, is moved to do something about it.

Everyone wants to find a solution, to fix what’s wrong, but ultimately, we realize that we can’t always fix everything no matter how much we may want to. That sometimes, just being there with someone, is just as important as the food you give them. Because companionship is a necessary part of humanity.

Missioners-in-training at the Sant’Egidio community.

It’s been quite an eye-opening experience going on the food-runs with the Sant’Egidio community. I have met people and had conversations that I never would have expected. I’m beginning to recognize faces and remember names as I’m walking through the streets of D.C. on my own, and it’s nice to say “hi” to someone and have them recognize you and smile, knowing that they are noticed and cared for.

I’m grateful that Sant’Egidio has given me this opportunity to form friendships with the poor, and I hope that more people will be open to doing the same. Do you have five minutes to engage someone you might normally rush by every day?

“The Christian who does not want to live this commitment to solidarity with the poor is not worthy to be called a Christian.” -Bishop Oscar Romero

Originally from Zambia, Chanda Ikachana has lived in the states the last ten years and earned her degree in psychology with a minor in religion/theology from Catholic University of America. Her time spent on mission with the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará, as well as volunteering with local youth has sparked an interest in pursuing nonprofit work as a career.