Housing the homeless at World Youth Day

If you have ever gone for a holiday tour, or taken a long coach ride from one part of your country to another, then you’d know how I felt after spending 12 hours travelling from Melbourne to Sydney, trapped in a bus together with 40 other young people who, like me, slept very little the previous night.

We had imagined that a bus ride through the Australian bush would have been exciting with songs of all kinds being sung by our young people. Instead, all that accompanied us was the harmony of the orchestra of snores.

We did make three pilgrimage stops along the way. But where we expected free or at least cheap refreshments, we were greeted by overpriced chips, hot dogs, and burgers, probably from the inhabitants of the towns out to make a quick buck from these guillible pilgrims.

Fortunately, our bus driver had the sense and compassion to make an unofficial highway stop that allowed us to make purchases that were worth our money – we had lunch at McDonald’s.

Little wonder that I was glad when we finally reached our accommodations at St. Ursula’s College in Sydney. I failed, and still fail to understand the wisdom of separating us from our luggage on route to Sydney. A few wrong tags led to luggage that never arrived for some of my fellow pilgrims, which meant spending the night in a freezing school hall without a sleeping bag.

The next morning, those who had spent the night under the heater in their sleeping bags complained that they were unable to sleep because of the cold. Those without sleeping bags moved out immediately to find serviced apartments in the city. These were eventually followed by many small groups, each finding their own accommodations in the city.

Was it a case of city kids so pampered by our comfortable lifestyles that many of us were unable to leave it behind to rough it out for a couple of weeks?

Perhaps. But after spending two weeks with these people, I’m inclined to believe that they had already been pushed to their limit. It’s just that some people have greater tolerance for cold than others do.

Still, in spite of their experiences, one fellow pilgrim remarked to me that she was reminded of a scene where the homeless in other countries in winter huddle around a trashcan bonfire. She said her experience of staying in the school, though better than huddling around a bonfire, helped her to relate better to the homeless.

And homeless was what we were, much to the helplessness of our group coordinator, Winnie, until one day, as she sat at the door of the neighbouring parish of Our Lady of Fatima, wondering what to do, an Australian lady from another parish walked in and asked, “Have you got any pilgrims for us? The ones that were supposed to stay with our parishioners didn’t turn up.”

“Can you take 36 pilgrims?” asked Winnie hopefully. The lady made some phone calls and then nodded. “We can,” she said. Immediately, Winnie pointed to five girls beside her and instructed them to immediately go with our mysterious benefactor.

It didn’t take much faith to see how God was working miracles in our lives. Miracles is indeed the one word that characterised our pilgrimage to World Youth Day.

Another fellow pilgrim later remarked that this group of young people from Singapore, if ever asked to host pilgrims from other countries, would probably be one of the first to open their houses and welcome then in because “we understand what it’s like to have difficult living conditions”.

Indeed as we were later comparing our experiences of our home stay hosts, we found that it didn’t take someone with a big house, or with a great knowledge of the Catholic faith to host us pilgrims. All that was needed was a warm and sincere heart. And one thing we’ve learnt is that the one who provides materially for others receives much spiritually.

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