by Nick Sharkey
When I joined IVC I wanted to do something different with my life. I wanted to work directly with poor people. After many years of pursuing a demanding career and raising three children together with my wife, Janice, I was ready for a change.
I was influenced by several factors. When I was growing up my parents helped those who were less fortunate than our family in many different ways. My present suburban parish strongly encourages acts of social justice. For example, our church’s stained glass windows once belonged in an inner-city church that had been closed; they are a constant reminder of those struggling with their lives in Detroit.
While I was considering an early retirement offer from a large corporation, I attended Mass one Sunday morning. One of the hymns selected repeated the refrain, “Whatsoever you do for the least of my brethren, you do unto me.”
The combination of the pending retirement offer and the words from Matthew’s gospel inspired me. I was sure that I was being told that it was time for me to spend time with the poor.
This led me to IVC Detroit. In my first two placements, I worked in administrative assignments for organizations that worked with the poor. They did important, meaningful work but it didn’t feel right for me.
I told the regional director that I wanted to work directly with the poor. Finally, in the spring of my second year she called and said, “You said you want to work with the poor. I made an appointment for you to speak with the director of the Saints Peter and Paul Warming Center for poor people in downtown Detroit.”
After my first visit to Sts. Peter and Paul I was reminded of the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for.” The smells had overwhelmed me – body odor, alcohol on the breath and toilet odors. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this work after all.
I was learning the first lesson in working with the poor – sometimes it is messy and awkward. You must step out of your personal comfort zone. Soon I ignored the odors and focused on the smiling faces of those who walked through the door when we opened in the morning.
The most fulfilling part of my week was when I led a men’s group for one hour every Monday. In a communal setting we prayed the Ignatian Daily Examen together, and the guests described their deepest hopes and greatest fears.
I had experienced a part of life that I never knew existed. This is what I wanted when I began IVC, but even more important – I’m convinced I’m doing what God wants me to do at this time in my life.
When IVC members were reading Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution at one of our monthly city meetings, we watched a videotape of Shane speaking to a group. He talked about a survey that had been taken of Christians and their attitudes about the poor.
As I recall, he said those surveyed estimated that they thought Christ spent about 80 percent of his time on Earth with the poor and the marginalized. When asked how much time they spent with the poor, it was 5 percent.
The survey made me think about my IVC experiences at the warming center. I’m far from spending 80 percent of my time with the poor, but through IVC I’m getting closer to following the example of Christ.
Nick Sharkey has been a volunteer with IVC Detroit since 2002, serving as regional director from 2009 to 2016. He currently volunteers at Detroit’s Cristo Rey High School. He considers his time at the Sts. Peter and Paul Warming Center as the “sweet spot” of his volunteer work with IVC.