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Friends on the Street


Missioner-in-training Valerie Ellis reflects on the need of those around us.

I was thinking back to a time when I really needed a friend of mine to be present in my life. Because I really needed her, I was spending more time with her. It struck me that at times when I didn’t need her as much, we spent less time together. It made me think about how when we don’t need Jesus as much, we go about our business as if the world is our oyster. However, when we fall, all of a sudden we “realize” or remember that there is a God.

What if we lived all of our relationships like this? How important would it be for us to need others? The other night, I made a new friend. Let’s call him Sun. The crazy part about meeting Sun was that just by looking into your eyes, he saw your very soul.

We were in a group, and when we introduced ourselves, he stopped short when he came to me. “Valerie?” he said, as if a question. “You have to watch out for Valeries,” he told the group. “They don’t say much, but they have your back. Valeries take care of everyone. But here’s the tricky part about Valeries: in taking care of everyone else, they neglect to take care of themselves.”

How could he possibly know that? Here is the answer, according to Sun, “everything I say doesn’t really come from me; it comes from God.” Sun didn’t approach me, I approached him. As we got to talking, I realized that I needed him more than he needed me. I needed the validation he provided by seeing me for who I was.

And here’s the kicker: I met Sun while participating in an event with the Community of Sant’Egidio. Our group was comprised of volunteers from Franciscan Mission Service, Catholic Volunteer Network, and Catholic University of America.

Going into the night, I thought that our task was to be serving in a food pantry. I was pleasantly surprised to learn of the Friends on the Street model that started in Rome in the 1970s. This “friendship on the street” is a concentrated effort to present dignity to individuals “with simple gestures of respect and friendship.” The food run movement spread in the 1980s to cities around the world, and has its focus not only in offering food, but also in learning the names and sharing conversation with those who are so frequently overlooked.

What I learned was that not everyone who is on the streets is a product of his or her own devices. Just ask Sun. He will tell you, “I want a job, but apparently not many people need help right now.” He has a broom and sweeps the community in which he lives every night, because “whether you live inside or outside, you should keep your home clean.”

The phrase cleanliness is next to Godliness is not lost on Sun. Would it be lost on us if we had to rely on drop-in centers for a shower or clean clothes? Would we be so quick to keep the word of God
if thousands of people were traipsing through our home on a daily basis? What if instead of picking up loose newspapers or children’s toys, we were picking up rat droppings, or worse yet, dead rats?

Sun was not alone in his commitment to God. Time and time again over the course of the night, we heard stories of hopefulness in what appeared from the outside as a hopeless situation. When we offered food, only what was needed was accepted, and individuals were quick to ask for us to share with others who needed it more.

What a pure faith we found in the eyes of those who had so little. What rich conversations we had with those whose lives were so far from what we expected. What wealth we received in laughter, love, and community.

But that’s how it is with friends, whether they be old or new. Like Sun, when someone whom you really need is there for you, it’s as if the light of God is shining through that person to your very soul. It’s an amazing witness of how another person can say exactly what you need to hear, right when you need to hear it. It is a friendly reminder to cherish the people with whom we are blessed to spend time, to accept help when we need it, and to see the true need in those around us.

Valerie served for two years (2014-2015) in Cochabamba, Bolivia working with CUBE (Centro Una Brisa de Esperanza) to raise sexual violence awareness and prevention, and in CEV (Comunidad Educativa Para La Vida) teaching and nurturing children six months to 8-years-old. Valerie grew up outside of Wichita, Kansas and graduated from The University of Tampa. She found her way to Franciscan Mission Service after 12 years of working in higher education where she worked with international students and designed and taught a class called "Avoiding Violence: Be A Part of the Solution."