Editor’s Note: Reminded by a brief snowfall, DCSC volunteer Emily Dold recognizes the differences between her and the men of her ministry site, the Father McKenna Center. While recognizing her own experiences do not align entirely with those experiencing homelessness, she strives towards the long road of deeper understanding, knowledge, and love.

It’s snowing in D.C. And I’ve been challenged to look at a double edged sword presented by this weather: its beauty and its crudeness.

When D.C. had its first “significant” snowfall, the rector of the Gonzaga College High School Jesuit community had gone on a walk. He became so intensely gleeful at the sight of promising flurries that his joy propelled him off his chair, onto his feet and into the winter weather. As he turned the corner of the block on his first snow-covered walk, he came across those of his community who sleep and live outside. And he was met with a realization of what can be a simple joy for those with secure, warm shelters may be a dread for those who go without such stable housing. He was even more aware of this, as the high school’s property is home to the Father McKenna Center.

Those experiencing homelessness do not usually find favor in winter or stormy weather. This is not a realization new to you, me, or the rector. However, while I have been working for an organization that focuses on those experiencing homelessness and have been serving food to the men in our program who are intimately familiar with the dreadful compounding effects and hazards of cold and inclement weather, I am not in great understanding of the men’s experiences. Like the rector, I have moments of realization that I have an abundance of security to go back to when my surroundings get too cold or difficult. The men that come to the Center do not. Moreover, I have been taught that the men have to make sure they do not fall into comfort in homelessness lest they want to continue where they are. That is no easy feat.

I want to better understand the men I serve. To do this, I have to make sure that I respect and cherish the lives and stories of those that I encounter.

I really do not want to fall into the category of those who do service to fill their own desires to feel good about themselves. Through the Father McKenna Center’s assigned reading – Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton – I now feel acutely aware of how self-interests, such as something as simple as wanting to do service work, can distract from the needs of those being served. Toxic Charity points to how service and our conceptualization of it can be harmful. The author draws up the “Oath for Compassionate Service,” a list of what to focus on and what to avoid when participating in service. One of which is actually, “Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.” And with that, I have tried to focus on carrying out my daily tasks, tempering my curiosity in knowing and asking more about those who have life experiences that I do not and will not likely experience personally.

Covid-19 has also made it difficult to connect in conversation with others. Safety is a top priority at the Center and our social distancing practices obviously do not yield organic conversation. Furthermore, if someone were to ask me about my shelter accommodations, experiences with the systems of DC, and/or personal goals, I would find it odd; why would the men that come to the Center not also find questions as such intrusive?

To understand more about experiences of homelessness, I have looked to resources other than the Center, such as my local library, where I checked out Evicted by Matthew Desmond. And while I got more insight into evictions and their role in homelessness, an understanding of the complexities of homelessness specific to men in DC cannot be grazed through library reading. (At least to my current knowledge. If you have any resources, feel free to reach out to me in the comments!)

So, as DCSC rounds the midyear hump and as I have found routine in my work, I recognize that to continue my growth in this year of service, I need to be better grounded in the “who” as they intersect with the “what” of homelessness and the “where” of DC. I believe that through the process of understanding, I can become a better listener, advocate, and DC community member. While I take this on, I will continue to keep the “Oath for Compassionate Service” as my guide. I know that conversations will fill this journey, and I embrace the respect that is needed for those conversations as well as my nervousness of initiating dialogue. May these sharing of words be mutually beneficial.

I hope that the next time you hear from me, I can tell you more about the community around me and the men that come to the Father McKenna Center. In taking this on, I will be going out of my comfort zone of washing dishes, sorting donations, and preparing and serving food. Like the men, I cannot stay in my comfort zone if I want to grow. Wish me luck.