How to Make Blessing Bags for the Homeless
“The poor remain entrusted to us and it is this responsibility upon which we shall be judged at the end of time” —Compendium of Social Doctrine (183)
On Good Friday my husband took the route home from church that leads us through downtown St. Paul, a route that is always leisurely on a Sunday morning. The reality of a world oblivious to the Triduum hit us as we encountered the busy Friday afternoon traffic. Then we saw him — a homeless man up ahead at the next traffic light. Liturgically, Christ had just died on the cross and was descending into hell, but in our current moment he was standing before us in the person of the homeless man.
“As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
I turned around and asked my daughter if we had any “blessing bags” left. A blessing bag is a collection of simple necessities we keep in our car to hand out to the homeless we encounter at street corners. We were out of blessing bags but had a box of granola bars. My husband rolled down the window and the man came over to us.
“I’m Josh! What are your names?” he asked cheerily. We told him our names and my husband offered Josh the food. He was delighted, and then he looked into the back of our van and saw the children.
“What a beautiful family!” he gushed. Then he addressed them, “You kids grow up helping people, okay?”
Lent is over now, and so is the Church’s focus on prayer, fasting and almsgiving, but as Jesus said a few days before his death, “The poor you will always have with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:8). The poor still need the generosity of those who have more — and we, in fact, need them.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (183) draws from Scripture: “The poor remain entrusted to us and it is this responsibility upon which we shall be judged at the end of time.” We see this in the Luke 16 in the parable of the rich man and the poor man Lazarus and in Matthew 25 when Jesus explains that whatever we do for the least of his brethren we do for him.
Jesus further tells us, “Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow for you” (Luke 5:42). This saying was always a little troubling for me, for having been raised in a city with many homeless people begging on corners, having traveled in Europe and encountered beggars, and now seeing them on corners in my current city, I have always struggled to know the best way to help people in need. If I give them cash, there is no way of knowing that they will use it for their good, and I have learned that even gift cards can be used as credit toward a purchase of drugs from a dealer.
Yet, Jesus still commands us to give to the person who begs from us. What could I give them? A few years ago I learned about blessing bags as a way of actually helping people by providing them items they really need. My children and I brainstormed a list of simple, helpful items that would do well sitting in a hot or cold care, and I looked around on the internet for advice on what a homeless person could really use. We compile blessing bags with bulk online orders or use the dollar store.
Here are what we usually compile in each gallon bag:
- Lip balm: This is helpful for people who spend a lot of time outside.
- A toothbrush: Dental hygiene is hard to keep with when one is homeless.
- A small bottle of toothpaste: Small is better since many homeless carry all their belongings in one bag.
- A small deodorant: They can get soap in public bathrooms for washing up, but other hygiene products cost money.
- A pair of socks: Socks wear out quickly and can add extra warmth in winter.
- Tuna pouches: This is a food that does not go bad quickly, needs no tools to open, and is easy to chew.
- Chewy granola bars: This is another easy to open, easy to chew food. We often get the higher protein ones that are more filling.
- Hand warmers: We give these out in the winter.
- For women: feminine hygiene products. I have not actually done this in my bags, but I am thinking about having a few packages in our blessing bag box to have on hand for women.
When we got home from Good Friday liturgy, I pulled out my stock of blessing bag supplies, and the children quickly filled several more bags. Then they made a list of things we need to make more bags. With the weather warming up and the economic downturn still in force, we are seeing needy people nearly every time we drive to our parish.
When we give these bags out, we always receive enthusiastic responses, such as, “These are my favorite!” And “I love the tuna pouches!” The joyful gratitude is contagious. We know some of the people we see regularly by name. I know that this is just a small way to help these people in need, but the small material gift along with the human contact is as good for us as it is for them. We will always have the poor with us, and we need them to remind us to give away our riches as much as they need our gifts. And like our new friend Josh, I hope that my children will grow up helping people.