It’s National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, a time when we all need to reflect on such pressing issues that hit us right here in our own neighborhoods. With St. John the Evangelist Homeless Shelter in Green Bay opening up for the winter season this month, I’ve been thinking about how we do things here in De Pere, and what we do to take care of each other. I want to reflect back on an issue we took up at a recent city council meeting in August. We discussed and created a new ordinance that makes it possible for someone to operate a homeless shelter in the city. Specifically, the ordinance allows for “a facility providing, without charge, overnight lodging, with or without meals, for people with no ordinary or regular home or residence address.”
The public hearing portion of our discussion was most heart-warming. Ten people from the community shared their feelings and opinions with clarity and compassion. We rarely get one neighbor to come and share their thoughts with us, so ten was quite nice. One of those people was Fr. Al McBride, a Norbertine priest from St. Norbert Abbey. In his statements, he quoted the “25th chapter of Matthew“. Matthew 25:40 happens to be my favorite bible verse: “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” It simply means that we need to take care of each other, and when we do, we are like Jesus to those we care for. Fr. McBride also pointed out that we pledged our allegiance to the American flag at the beginning of the meeting, and that “the flag of our country was always for the poor, the lonely, the rejected.”
I sat there during our discussion, so filled with hope, and grateful for my role in the discussion. However, the significance of this discussion didn’t hit me until the next day, when Pope Francis tweeted, “An excellent program for our lives: the Beatitudes and Matthew Chapter 25.” So in a span of less than 24 hours, Matthew 25 was quoted to me twice. Putting the two together, it all seemed to make sense.
Listen, I know we don’t hear religion and faith discussed much these days in the context of municipal governments; perhaps it just doesn’t belong in most discussions. But, no matter your faith background or traditions, we could all learn something from Fr. McBride and Pope Francis. In the daily work of our city, we need to remember take care of each other. Regardless of our political or social beliefs, if we all just work toward that simple goal, we can achieve a lot.
So what does this all mean in real city terms? I’ll give some examples. When a local homeless shelter overflows, and an institution like St. Norbert College asks permission from the city to house some of the homeless in their gym, we have to work with them to make it happen (which is exactly what we did last year), even if it means bending a rule or two. When we discuss things like imposing fees for trash collection, we have to consider the fact that generating trash is not an optional activity (like taking a dance class at the Community Center). And when we impose such fees, it makes things difficult for our neighbors who just can’t afford it. When we discuss things like changing or reducing bus routes because of low ridership to save money, we have to think about our neighbors who need such a service the most. While I ride the bus to work on occasion, I probably won’t ever truly need our metro bus system; and buses may not have as many riders as we’d like, but that doesn’t mean we can disregard those who do have these needs.
Running a city such as ours and providing services like those I’ve described costs money. That’s the bottom line. This stuff isn’t free. But when we commit to spending our hard-earned tax dollars on important things like taking care of our neighbors, we define De Pere. We define the people who call De Pere home. And that’s a label we should proudly wear.