”Newsweek – Washington Post. com

On Faith:



Mohammad Ali Salih

Two things worried me one recent Thursday evening as I entered the United Methodist church in Burke, a suburb in northern Virginia.

I went there to volunteer as a nightshift helper in a one-week program to shelter about fifty homeless people from the winter cold.

First, I had always avoided the homeless as I have seen their numbers gradually increasing in downtown Washington where I started working 27 years ago. I have seen them sleeping on the sidewalks, pushing their belongings in grocery carts, panhandling, shouting and cursing loudly.

Second, not being a member of the church and volunteering for the first time there, I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle myself.

Nevertheless, living for all these years in Burke, I have taken my three children to mosques, churches, synagogues, Buddhist and Hindu temples. Wherever we went we were welcomed.

That's why I took it in stride when a homeless person at this Methodist church asked me, upon reading my first name on my name tag: “What is a Mohammad doing in a church?” A volunteer lady was more graceful when she commented: "I didn't know Mohammad is also a Christian name."

When I entered the church, I couldn't tell who was the volunteer and who was the homeless person because most of the homeless looked like ordinary people -- until I noticed that only the volunteers and Fairfax County officials (who coordinated the shelter program) had name tags.

I was surprised to learn that about half the homeless there had jobs, but apparently the jobs didn’t pay enough to cover their rents and other expenses.

I also was surprised to see that most of the homeless there were white. There were no children, but there were women (one pregnant); a few apparently married couples (we were not supposed to ask); two in wheelchairs; a few Latinos, and an Asian couple who looked like any other college boy and girl.

During my night shift, volunteers took turns sleeping so that at least two of us were awake at all times. The area was monitored every 30 minutes, in pairs. Bathrooms were checked all the time (illicit drug use?) and cleaned promptly (there were lots of “accidents”).

We were advised to have “a sense of humor, patience, justice, equity and compassionate.” Some of the homeless didn’t want to talk, others did.

One, noticing my curious questions, shot back: “Hey, I am a respectable and dignified man.” He added, “Have you heard of the expression ‘a paycheck away from being a homeless’? That was what happened to me.”

One loudly complained about another homeless: “He is making fun of me for being gay.”

One made a request: “My shoes smell. Could you spray them without spraying me?”

One was self-conscious and declared: “I have a job, but it is the place to sleep in that I don’t have.”

Another said: “I have been a homeless for only one month.”

A woman begged: “I need to call my children right now. I missed them.”

One said he lost his shoe laces and asked for laces.

A Latino tried to explain something in English, but no one could understand him. When another homeless Latino was asked to translate, he said he was scared by the policeman who came to the church to check.

After I helped clean the bathroom, took trash bags to the outside dump, brought sleeping bags to the large sleeping hall (usually the cafeteria), gave one person a chair to use as a night stand, helped another store his shopping cart, I sat down on a chair in one corner of the hall.

I watched as the homeless arranged their sleeping bags and laid down to sleep. Some men and women kissed each other goodnight. The Asian couple laid close to each other. The lights were dimmed and quietness prevailed.

I thought about the homeless who earlier told me about “one paycheck away from being homeless.” That's when I got scared. Could it be me?

Around midnight, I went to a small room assigned as a chapel for the homeless and the volunteers, sat on a chair for few minutes, stared at the flickering candle and tried to calm myself.

Mohammad Ali Salih is a Washington correspondent for London-based “Asharq Alawsat,” an international Arabic daily newspaper, and other Arabic publications.