A volunteer smiles as she gives a bowl of soup to a woman visiting the parish-run soup kitchen at St. Mary of the Isle Church in Long Beach, N.Y.
When I stood in a Bosnian neighborhood in the late 1990s with residents who were reclaiming their homes after being forced out with the threat of ethnic cleansing, a Muslim woman I met began to cry.
Through an interpreter, she said, "Nobody cares about me." I put my arms around her and said, "We care." She held me tightly and cried harder. I was being escorted through the area by Catholic Relief Services.
It was an extraordinary look at how the Catholic Church truly cares for people all over the world, no matter their race, their ethnic origin or their religion.
Fast forward to 2013, and I was on a soup bus handing out scrambled eggs and sausages in St. Louis. The organizer had made a special effort to buy beef sausage so that those who could not eat pork because of their religious beliefs could still have sausage with their eggs.
It was more than a gesture of hospitality. It was showing profound respect for the beliefs of others. Never mind that he thought spam was a delicacy. Nobody's perfect, after all.
Whether we look at the Catholic Church's outreach globally or locally, no one asks, "Are you Catholic?" before giving them a meal, a basket of food, clothes for themselves and their children, and toys at Christmas time. We just want to help in whatever way works for that person or that family.
Meeting people where they are -- whether it's in a bombed-out neighborhood with people who don't speak our language or with the sometimes smelly, dirty street people who find their way into our lives -- takes patience and prayer, but it's the only way to be the disciples we are called to be.
This past Thanksgiving, I delivered dinners to the homeless, to the elderly, to the homebound, to the prostitutes and to their "manager." If it seems wrong to give food to prostitutes or the people they work with, then I've missed the point. I need to look at what I'm doing through the lens of the Gospel.
I'm not here to judge or withhold food from someone. That's a lesson I need to learn over and over, especially when people don't or won't do what I think is right, say what I want them to say, or live the way I believe they should live.
The numbers of people who need help keep increasing, and we don't seem to be getting anywhere, but that's not really what we're trying to do as volunteers. We bring the Gospel to life through our actions: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the imprisoned -- you get the idea.
These days, our hearts are lighter when we go out to meet the people. Pope Francis reminds us constantly how we should treat people -- from choosing his name, to explaining what it means to be disciples, to living the Gospel joyfully and sharing it with others through our actions and possibly our words as well.
It's exciting to take part in activities and events that become a safety net for the most vulnerable people in our midst, whether they genuflect at the side of a church pew or kneel on a prayer rug and bow their heads to pray or don't go into a church building at all.
Although it's hard for some of us to accept, we have not been placed on this earth to be judge and jury for people unlike us.
If we accept our "mission" statement, given to us at baptism and reinforced through the years, we must put our prejudices aside and step up and out in faith as disciples of Christ, carrying out his will. Then we can smile and say, like so many others, that we are truly on a mission from God.
The writer is editor of The Messenger, newspaper of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill.