Pope Benedict joins other religious leaders during the 2011 gathering for peace outside the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.
BELLEVILLE, Ill. — A second-grader spread jelly carefully, covering every square millimeter of space on a piece of bread and then waited for someone to give her the "mate" that would make her PB&J sandwich complete.
She and her classmates were making sandwiches for new homeless shelter "guests" because the shelter's kitchen remodel wasn't quite finished. It was truly a labor of love for the pint-sized sous-chefs as they made sandwiches in their Catholic school cafeteria.
The shelter is an ecumenical project with a number of Christian churches working with the lone Catholic church in the town to provide a safe, warm place for people who no longer have anyplace to call home.
The shelter opened in October, and the executive director said the various churches in town work well together to meet the needs of the homeless. Her board members include pastors from a variety of churches, including the Catholic pastor. People are more concerned with taking care of those in need than in whether they are Catholic or Presbyterian or Baptist or nothing at all.
This cooperative effort bodes well for the Catholic community, sometimes seen as aloof or so different from some evangelical churches as to be more curious or strange than anything else. People who grow up in heavily Catholic cities and towns don't face the questioning, the skepticism, the distrust that confront those who live in areas where Catholics are the minority, with our rituals and traditions often misunderstood.
Catholics, along with Christians of other denominations, are joining forces to bring comfort and relief to people who desperately need help. Nobody is playing the religion card, asking folks what church they call their own before offering them something to eat and a place to stay until they can get back on their feet.
In addition to doing what Catholics do best -- helping people in need -- parishioners also have the opportunity to give people of other faiths a chance to see what Catholics do, how they respond and how well they can work with others.
The director of the shelter is coming to know a kind and energetic pastor who genuinely cares about the people in his community even if they're not his parishioners. He doesn't behave in a way that puts people off but rather invites them to know him and through him to know about the Catholic parish in town.
And this shelter offers possibilities to the people of the Catholic community to reach out to those who know nothing about them and evangelize them with their actions rather than their words. While quoting Scripture has its place, people who are cold or hungry can't focus on Bible passages, no matter how inspiring, until they have their human needs met first.
This brings us back to our PB&J sandwiches. The children used all of their expertise to make sure those sandwiches were made right with the peanut butter spread to the edge of the bread. They deposited the sandwiches in bags they had decorated earlier, and then took the sandwiches to the shelter where they met other children who were staying there. One child even brought some of his Halloween candy to share with the people.
After making their delivery, the children toured the facility, and the director talked to them about the issues these people face: the need to finish their educations, to learn skills and to find employment.
The second-graders listened carefully as people who understand what it means to live the Gospel message even if they might not be able to quote the biblical chapter and verse. And the director said she was truly grateful for their help because these sandwiches would be the main course for lunch the next day.
This was a wonderful example of ecumenism in the flesh, of dialogue with deeds, garnished with words of gratitude on the side.
The writer is editor of The Messenger, newspaper of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill.