Catholic News Service
Pope Francis blesses the sculpture "Jesus the Homeless" during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican.
Catholic News Service
Pope Francis blesses the sculpture "Jesus the Homeless" during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican.
I've worked my share of soup kitchens, homeless shelters and Catholic Charities' food lines. The experiences, the smells and noises never leave me. Not to mention the heartache.

The line snakes through the large hall. Men, women and children wait patiently outside in the cold. Inside, pots are steaming: soup, meat -- often ham or turkey or pork chops -- and potatoes, vegetables, bread, and lots and lots of coffee.

The food smells great, but there are other odors. Musty clothes. More than a hint, here and there, of body odor. This is the smell of poverty. If sadness and depression have an odor, that's there, too.

But if you think practicing Gospel values means being squeaky clean, you're probably not doing it right. It can be messy work, because that's where people -- hungry, hurting, wounded people -- live.

If you listen, especially with your heart, you can hear God.

Religion, good at feeding souls, also feeds the body. But it doesn't happen without controversy.

Even as Catholics -- and some others -- work to give food to those without, there is a continuing debate over the place of religion in society.

Too often those who maintain that Christianity is being squeezed out of the public square fail to appreciate the diversity of society and how embracing that diversity by proclaiming the church's social gospel means spreading the kingdom of God.

Yes, the soup-kitchen hungry might be Catholic. But likely not. There are Protestant hungry, too. And Jewish. Even Muslim and the unchurched.

At none of the shelters where I've labored did I ever see one that made a big "thing" about religion. The diners were greeted, smiled at and fed. They were talked to, treated like fellow humans. Which, of course, they are. There's no religion test. There were no sermons before eating; no required services afterward. No Bible tracts slipped onto the trays.

So, OK, there was the occasional "God bless you" from a volunteer.

A soup kitchen may be a belly-filling experience for the patrons, but for me it has been a humbling one. And an enlightening one as well: scores of hungry people being fed by charity within blocks of the financial district where a stock market fluctuation can make or lose fortunes for wheeler-dealers.

This one also was just a few blocks from Chicago's tony shopping district, all dressed up for Christmas, where a tiny portion of the luxuries purchased each day would more than fund care -- or jobs -- for the homeless.

Watching the diners eat is instructive. Some warily trundle off into a protected corner and huddle over their plates, fearful that someone will take it away. Yes, a substantial percentage of any soup kitchen's homeless "clients" are emotionally disturbed. They are victims of a society that doesn't seem to acknowledge the most damaged of people.

But there are others, even families, whose fortunes have slipped from being the working poor into hardscrabble homelessness. These are victims of an economy that too often rewards the wealthy and penalizes the poor.

The debate over the place of religion in society and public life will likely continue. Some people will make a stink because a clerk wished them "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas." And they'll sputter about how ours is a Christian country. As though hungry Jews, hungry Muslims, even hungry atheists, somehow don't count.

Such foolish talk fails to advance the kingdom of God because it ignores the real presence of faith around us.

Want to see faith in the public square? Go see where the hungry are fed, the hurting consoled, the wounded healed. It's happening now at a soup kitchen near you. Because this is where the church is.