This week I participated in four Thanksgiving observances. While I was honored to speak at two, the one that touched me most deeply was a lunch in honor of and for “the homeless.”

The meal was sponsored by the Ministerial Association, and although it was the 17th year they’ve done this, it was my first. I’ve volunteered at the Salvation Army’s Thanksgiving dinner in the past, but this was different. There, the volunteers served food to the guests. Here, the food was served by a cadre of high school student volunteers, and we clergy were seated with the guests.

The food was excellent, a complete Thanksgiving feast (with the odd addition of goldfish crackers at each place setting). And the conversation was fascinating. The men at my table talked about the lack of housing in Sarasota, how hard it is to get your Social Security checks when you don’t have a mailing address, and the abundance of free food in the community. “You’ll never go hungry in Sarasota,” said one, “but you’ll have one hell of a time finding someplace to live.”

The homeless. The phrase rolls off our tongues. But if we pigeon-hole people that easily, they cease to be people. They’re just a category.

For me, “the homeless” became Anthony, David, Rick and Robert, and briefly Brenda and Darryl, who came late, ate, and left early. Nearly everyone was carrying a backpack; one woman at the next table had a bedroll with her.

I realized that this was a world as foreign to me as any distant country, and just like anywhere else, populated by people who aren’t much different from me. We all want to be treated with respect and kindness, we all have things we value and things we wish for. When we went around the table and said what we’re grateful for this Thanksgiving, we all said the same things: Family, friends, a caring community, love.

This year, may those of us who have a home strive to help our community figure out how to house those who don’t. People like David, who said homelessness is OK except for sleeping in the grass; at age 68, he said, it’s getting harder. Unlike our ancestor Jacob, who slept with a rock as a pillow and woke to say “God was in this place and I did not know it,” David doesn’t perceive God to be with him when he sleeps. Let’s change that.