We Are Here to Serve
In a rundown industrial area just east of uptown Charlotte, N.C., lies the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, where hundreds of men line up three times every day for a hot meal and come for a safe place to sleep at night. For the past 15 years, the Knights of St. Matthew Council 10852 have worked to make a difference in the lives of the men at the shelter by preparing and serving dinner at the facility on the first Tuesday of every month.
The Knights took their outreach efforts one step further on Holy Thursday, March 28, by sponsoring a joint project with St. Francis of Assisi Circle 4466. Partnering with the nonprofit group Samaritan’s Feet, the Knights and Squires gave away more than 150 pairs of shoes and socks after washing the men’s feet in imitation of Jesus washing the feet of the Apostles.
The men who come to the shelter are from all different walks of life, and their stories are as varied as their backgrounds. Many have suffered from long-term unemployment, while others have health, abuse or addiction issues. Some are veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress from their service in the military. Whatever their story, these men are seen as brothers in Christ by the Knights.
FOLLOWING CHRIST’S EXAMPLE
In undertaking their routine acts of charity, the Knights of Council 10852 work in teams, with a group of six people preparing food on Monday and a group of 12 serving the dinner on the following night. In the summer months, Knights serve about 250 meals per night; in the winter, that number increases to 300.
“We have more volunteers than we can use, so we work on a first-come basis,” said Bob Wilcocks, the council’s coordinator of the monthly outreach. “Everyone leaves with a warm feeling in their hearts and is impressed with the outpouring of thanks from the clients.”
The plan for the Holy Thursday event came about during a conversation about spring service activities, explained Rick Caron, family director of Council 10852 and chief counselor of Circle 4466. “The thought came about for a father-son project,” he said. “[We thought] we could do something around Easter — a project at the Men’s Shelter, maybe serve dinner together. Then, a Holy Spirit moment happened, and we came up with the idea to wash the feet of the men at the shelter on Holy Thursday.”
The experience was moving for all those involved, including the Knights, their ladies’ auxiliary and the Squires. For the volunteers, it was more than just an opportunity to provide the men with much-needed footwear; it was a chance to be Christ to those men, to show them compassion and to live the Knights’ core principles.
“I think this (outreach) reflects all four principals of the Order,” Caron said. “Charity, to serve those men providing them new socks and sneakers; unity, giving us the strength to speak out and be here as Catholic men; fraternity, as a band of brothers coming together as a team to make this happen; and patriotism, as citizens that serve and witness our devotion to God and country.”
For Knight Ed Craig, the Holy Thursday effort was an opportunity to emulate the example set by Jesus at the Last Supper. Craig greeted each man at the shelter warmly, introducing himself and inviting the men to allow the Knights to wash their feet. “We’re washing your feet as Jesus washed his Apostles’ feet,” he explained. “We’re all children of God. We’re all equal.”
Craig said he hopes the men at the shelter and the Knights realize that they are not so different than each other. Like many of the Knights, he also asked if he could pray with the men before they left, bowing heads and joining in a prayer of thanksgiving to God.
“Being part of the Knights of Columbus is all about charity and giving,” Craig later reflected. “We do a lot of fundraising, but this is where the rubber hits the road. I feel this is so close to what we’re really about.”
In one moment of prayer, Craig and a well-dressed young man named Javonte gave thanks to God for the gift of a job, as Javonte had just come from a successful job interview. He had been coming to the men’s shelter for the past year and was looking forward to getting back on his feet.
After their time together, Javonte said, “I’ve never had anybody do this for me. It was nice.”
JOYFUL SERVICE AND WITNESS
The smiles on the men’s faces and the camaraderie in the room during the Knights’ visit spoke volumes about the success of the outreach.
Michael, a Vietnam War veteran who is now in a wheelchair, greatly enjoyed the interaction with the Knights. “I am blessed,” he said.
The shelter staff was also very grateful. Throughout the day, Julie Putnam, community development relationship volunteer coordinator at the shelter, stood in awe watching the interactions between the Knights and the men.
“I think this is remarkable,” Putnam said. “One of the guys just said to me, ‘My feet have been hurting me all week long and I walk in tonight and you guys are giving away shoes.’”
She noted that all the men were smiling as they came out after having their feet washed and receiving new shoes, adding that the staff had never seen or heard so much joy from the men.
Squire Craig Curtis, 13, had the duty of providing clean water and emptying the basins. “I think the washing of the feet was very inspiring to do,” he said. “As I waited for the Knights to wash the feet, I heard some very sad stories, and it made me think how lucky I am to have a home.”
In addition to the 151 pairs of shoes given away on Holy Thursday, the Knights and Samaritan’s Feet were able to leave 79 pairs of shoes and socks for additional men in the future.
Brian Becker, a member of Council 10852 and a seminarian for the Diocese of Charlotte, explained that the event provided a learning opportunity for the volunteers. The goal was “to mold ourselves into the mission that Christ gave us in the Last Supper,” he said. “This gives us a chance to actually realize what Jesus did apart from the ceremonial foot washing that happens during the liturgy.”
Grand Knight Chuck Elgin likewise noted that while the washing of the feet during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper is symbolic, publicly washing the feet of men at a shelter “makes it real.”
Elgin added that he hopes that his council’s outreach efforts will encourage more Knights and their families — both in Charlotte and throughout the world — to become actively engaged in service programs.
According to Caron, the charity demonstrated by the volunteers was a form of Christian witness. In thanking the volunteers for their participation, he said, “Please pray for the men at the shelter, that we may have given them some hope and confirmed in their minds that they are not alone and Jesus loves them very much.”
He added, “Hopefully, we may have helped some return to the Church and grow closer to Christ!”
SUEANN HOWELL is the senior reporter at the Catholic News Herald, the official publication of the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C.