The first time I set foot on the campus of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, it wasn’t to meet with a sister, to attend Mass in Sacred Heart Chapel, or to take part in a retreat at the Center for Spiritual Development.
In fact, I spoke only with laypeople—none of them “belonging” to the campus, really. But they were all invited to be there as part of the Interfaith Shelter Network.
The network is exactly what it sounds like: a cooperative effort of different faith communities to provide hospitality to guests working their way out of homelessness.
When I wrote about the Interfaith Shelter Network for a local newspaper, each participating church hosted guests for a two-week period. Each night, a different group of parishioners provided the nightly meal (and enjoyed it with the guests!), other volunteers provided daily bag lunches, and additional volunteers spent the night with the guests.
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange hosted the ISN guests at the request of neighboring Holy Family Cathedral; parishioners from the church provided the manpower to keep the program running, while the sisters provided the actual shelter.
Many years later, the Interfaith Shelter Network still stands out among the thousands of subjects I’ve written about for publication.
I remember how the volunteers spoke about their experience. Many recalled feeling nervous about sharing dinner with a group of people experiencing homelessness; they didn’t know what to expect, what they would talk about, how much awkwardness they would feel.
What they discovered, without fail, was that the guests were people much like themselves. Certainly some had had radically different experiences, and made radically different choices, than the volunteers had—but when it came right down to it, they were all simply people trying to make their way in the world.
I also remember the awe I felt, as a parishioner of Holy Family. My parish had joined together with so many non-Catholic churches in my city in order to provide a safe place to sleep, nourishing meals, and fellowship to people focused on finding a job and saving the bulk of their income, so they could move into their own apartment upon completion of the 120-day program.
It was the first time I had knowingly seen ecumenism in action, but it was not the last—nor was it the last time I would see women religious working together with other faith communities to serve their brothers and sisters (or, as Sisters of St. Joseph would say, to love the dear neighbor).
During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I especially love to think back on my evening visit to the Interfaith Shelter Network. It’s beautiful to think what we can do for our brothers and sisters, and for our world, when we work together—when we truly act as the Body of Christ.