The night of Dec 18, 2020, was cool and wet. A light drizzle started to form as a small team of volunteers from Catholic Welfare Services (CWS) Night Mission met outside a 24-hour supermarket at half-past ten in eager anticipation to meet with the homeless in Toa Payoh. Since 2016, these dedicated volunteers have committed themselves to reach to those sleeping rough in common areas every Friday. Ordinarily, the mission of the group was simple, to hand out a packet drink and a bun and have conversations with each of the homeless and to journey with them. However, this night’s walk was special, as volunteers came with large Christmas goodie bags with items like T-shirts, masks, personal care items and biscuits.
Meeting with the homeless
Guided by the words of Saint Teresa of Calcutta “If you judge people, you have no time to love them”, the long-term volunteers requested that we should speak to the homeless and listen to their stories, but not to judge them or try to solve their problems. Instead, have a genuine and an open heart to listen to their pains, struggles and joys.
The homeless had been anticipating and awaiting the arrival of the volunteers. The group bumped into two homeless that they had not seen in a long while. Mr Tan and Mr Goh (not their real names), were sleeping at a flight of stairs behind a building. They had collected some cardboard pieces at one of the back alleys to form a makeshift bed for themselves. Volunteers shared that both Mr Tan and Mr Goh have been living in public areas for years. The volunteers were thankful to have met them as they had not seen the pair in weeks and were beginning to worry about them. “You guys should take cover, the rain is getting heavier,” said Mr Tan with much concern for us.
The Night Mission that CWS conducts at Toa Payoh does not come without its challenges. As we turned the corner and walked into an alleyway behind a coffee shop, a volunteer exclaimed loudly in Hokkien “Mr Lee, ho seh bo? (how are you?)” He was gesturing to Mr Lee (not his real name), a drink attendant at the coffee shop who gave a friendly wave back to the volunteers. Mr Lee was previously homeless when the volunteers met him two years ago. At that time Mr Lee had just experienced a painful divorce from his wife and was in some financial difficulties. One of the volunteers recounted that Mr Lee was initially very suspicious of the volunteers from the Night Mission.
“He shouted at us, hurled vulgarities at us and told us to mind our own business,” said one of the volunteers who declined to be named.
Taken aback by the backlash, the volunteer said that, instead of reacting to his words, he was reminded of what Jesus said in Matthew 5:39 “if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer the other as well.”
The volunteer continued: “I allowed Mr Lee to continue his tirade but by the end of it, we were both in tears as he shared with me about how he was hurting from all that was happening to him.” It took the volunteers a few more encounters to build trust with Mr Lee, who eventually relented to their care and concern, and even asked for help to find a job.
Having faithfully plied the neighbourhood of Toa Payoh for the past four years, the volunteers knew each one by name and were committed to building relationships beyond the transactional. All of the volunteers whom the Catholic News met had day jobs but would go the extra mile for the homeless e.g. speaking with doctors and lawyers on their behalf, meeting with social workers and even helping them to secure jobs.
Diocesan seminarian, Brother Simon Ho who joined the Night Mission for the first time was astonished at how open and trusting the homeless were to the volunteers. “I was struck by their openness to talk – we are used to the one or two word answers when trying to engage a stranger in conversation, but the homeless I met were willing to say more.” He continued: “All this reminds me of the intrinsic human need to be connected, welcomed and loved by another human person.
Rich or poor, this is what we all need and this is exactly what Christ did for us when He chose to be born in our world.”
To find out more about the CWS Night Mission visit www.catholicwelfare.org.sg