WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Brianne Peck, Lynn Zakreski, Ben Mackay realize their Marian Centre chores are 'all about God.'
Lynn Zakreski was making sandwiches at the Marian Centre. Another volunteer started barking orders about how these sandwiches were to be prepared. He insisted that the four slices of bread go in a line, crusts on the inside, how the mustard was to be spread and so forth. His manner was demanding, his words harsh.
Zakreski turned to a woman beside her, and said, "I didn't know the homeless were so picky."
The woman said they were not making sandwiches for the homeless. They were making sandwiches for Jesus.
"It was then, at that beautiful moment, I understood their particular attitude towards service, that everything they do, whether it's making a sandwich or washing windows, is all service towards God," said Zakreski, a religion teacher at St. Albert Catholic High School.
At Marian Centre, the poor people are Christ and, in serving them, the members of the Madonna House apostolate receive much more than they give.
This message is what Zakreski strives to instill in her Religion 35 students, who she has been bringing to the Marian Centre for the past 13 years. Volunteering there has transformed some students into lifelong servers.
Serving the poor is what the Marian Centre is known for. The homeless are welcomed five days a week for hearty stews served by staff and volunteers. Sometimes sandwiches and men's clothes are distributed to the needy.
Zakreski said the best place for young people to meet Jesus and experience an authentic witness of the Gospel is when they live the faith and do things through social justice.
"It is a real and tangible experience because God is very much with the poor and the homeless. The students have learned more from an opportunity like that than anything I might say in class," said Zakreski.
They do many tasks, everything from preparing meals and cleanup afterwards to painting the hallways. Eventually they realize it is they themselves who have been served.
It started as an optional project once a month on a Saturday. For the past couple of years it has become a mandatory part of the Grade 12 religion course, and the students visit weekly during school hours.
Zakreski teaches her students the difference between serving and volunteering. The main differences are their attitudes and their hearts. If their chores are all about God, even a rudimentary task like sweeping the floor or cooking soup could become an extraordinary service.
The real reason she takes her students to the Marian Centre is that it enlarges their hearts. Service to others exposes them to something bigger than themselves.
Brianne Peck, a Grade 12 student, described her service at the Marian Centre as "life altering." She found the staff there friendly, open and trusting.
"I had never done anything like this before. It was the first time I'd ever volunteered in Edmonton or any downtown area," said Peck.
Student volunteers who help out there are taught to acknowledge their own wounds, and to stand before suffering and lift it to God. Peck said she learned to suspend judgment of others.
"I got a stronger connection to Jesus and I realized that everyone is different and you don't judge people based on first appearances. Get to know them and the story behind who they really are," said Peck.
When Ben Mackay, another Grade 12 student, found out he would be an unpaid assistant at the Marian Centre, he said, "I was pretty excited. It's always good to help people."
With each visit he listened to a spiritual reading and took part in a reflection, with the ensuing discussions often inspiring. As well, he gained a greater willingness to help others.
"I thought we would be mostly helping the homeless person, but we were cleaning the environment and making them feel more comfortable when they came," said Mackay.
Olivia Trabysh is a high school graduate now attending university in Texas. While in Zakreski's religion class, she wrote an essay about her Marian Centre experiences.
She shared the essay with the WCR.
"I have learned from my experience in life and just in my few hours each week at the Marian Centre that nothing in life is certain, but the strength of hope is constant," wrote Trabysh.
Prior to taking the class, Trabysh said she was skeptical of religion because either zealotry or a lack of religion had surrounded her. Instead of tedious teachings, her faith was renewed through serving Jesus in others.
"Although my contribution of service may have been as small as painting walls, scraping gum off of chairs, washing windows, making sandwiches and even pysanky, I discovered who I was through the intent of my actions and the intent of my heart, rather than in the mere intent behind my words," said Trabysh.
Every person she met at the Marian Centre inspired her compassion for humanity in some way, and the opportunity to serve has had long-lasting rewards. Now she brings the wisdom and affection garnered through her service at the Marian Centre to the U.S. Bible Belt.
"My hope for humanity has been restored by the people of the Marian Centre. I know that I will never forget my time there, for it has been the most rewarding experience of the past 18 years of my life," she said.