By the time I studied at the University of Vermont, Sara Holbrook, who had been a professor of psychology there, had passed away years before, but her legacy remained. In 1937 she had founded the Burlington Community Center, intended to help Irish, Italian, and French-Canadian immigrants meet their own and their family’s needs and, ultimately, to obtain citizenship. Yet by the early 1980s the center, by then renamed in honor of its founder, among other things served as the city’s first emergency shelter and, in the evenings, that meant homeless folks did not have to sleep on the bitterly cold streets of Burlington in the wintertime at peril of their own life. They could, at least for the night, sleep on cots in the Sara Holbrook Center, and before bed receive a decent supper, courtesy of that shelter which was then working in coordination with various charitable organizations, chief among them at the time, churches.
That’s how my wife and I became involved with the poor, not just in Burlington but da per tutto, as they say in Italy. Yet our first exposure to folks who live on the streets was in the Sara Holbrook Center. We learned a few things there, most important among which is that homeless folks are people, real people. They’re not bums, not riffraff, not losers, though they are certainly folks down on their luck for some reason or other. But they are, first and foremost, people.
This was evident in the eyes of one man, a gentle soul, who week by week expectantly awaited my wife’s lasagna. She made two trays of that tasty nourishment for the shelter in the tiny oven of our apartment on North Winooski Avenue—I think it had room enough for two trays—and I would deliver them on my bicycle’s back rack through the snow, in some cases, to the Sara Holbrook Center, which, located on Front Street, was not far from 90 North Winooski Avenue, but it wasn’t close either. It was far enough away that I could gain in a short time on the bike as I rode along Burlington’s frigid North Street that took its breeze straight off Lake Champlain, an appreciation of how cold it would have been later that evening for lasagna-loving Sam, or any of those folks from the Sara Holbrook Center to have to live on the streets all night long. They wouldn’t have had the advantage of keeping their body warm by peddling the bike or the heat (along with an appetizing pre-prandial odor) from the lasagna somehow creeping up the back tail of my long overcoat that I would put over the back rack of the bike so as to keep the lasagna warm en route. No, without the Sara Holbrook Center, I reckon, some of those folks would have died, frozen to death on the cold and unforgiving streets of Burlington Vermont, the state’s biggest, and really only, city—pace Montpelier.
Of all of the folks I shook hands with when I delivered the lasagna, which was distinctly the most popular dish among the many donations that arrived each evening, I recall Sam the best. I think his name was Sam, I hope it was, for he did not want to be forgotten. I could see that in his eyes as easily as I could sense it from his words. He wanted someone to know that he was alive. He wanted to matter to the world, even to his community, but he seemed not to know how to do that save to be the first to compliment me—for as usual, even though I was clear that I had not made the lasagna but my wife had, I got all the credit for simply showing up with what my wife had actually made—and then Sam would be the last to bid me farewell as I headed out the door to remount my bike and head home where I would find my loving new bride having prepared me my own supper. (She never got credit for that or for so many things she did then or anytime in her life, and it has never bothered her.)
“Don’t forget me,” Sam would say, either verbally or, more poignantly, with his eyes.
“No, I won’t,” I would respond, adding somewhat awkwardly, “For God has not forgotten you.” Yet secretly I wondered about that. How could this man have found his way to this point in his life?
Then I remembered that he was a human being, and that Christ himself taught very clearly that is not one’s proper business to judge one’s fellow human being, but rather to care for that person. I learned then what I now know but must be reminded of every day, that folks different from me, however different they may be, however strange the twists and turns of their life might appear to have been, are in fact my brothers and my sisters. We are all in this human endeavor together. And the key to understanding that, or perhaps just the beginning of it, might just be, to quote another wise teacher (in this case not Jesus but Garfield), lasagna.