Tuesday, January 6, 2015


There's this bit in the middle of the book of Matthew that most people have heard before; it goes sort of like this:  Jesus is describing what God is going to say when he welcomes people into Heaven.  God says:  "For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink . . . " and the people God is talking to scratch their heads and say, "when the heck did I do that?", and God says, "when you did it to the least of my peoples."

Most of the times I hear that passage, I think one of two things:  Possibly I think, "Oh, yeah; we're supposed to get out there and take care of other people".  It's a weird kind of an almighty God that I believe in, one who can't/doesn't/won't (I'm not sure which) just snap fingers and make everything perfect.  Instead, for some mysterious reason, He delegates His work to a bunch of very messed up and imperfect human beings, and for some reason I'm supposed to be part of that ad hoc Food-and-Water Task Force.

Another thing I often think when I hear that passage is that God comes at me through some of the most down-trodden people I meet.  Put aside all those saintly glowing images of Jesus in clean flowing robes with haloes of light around him; if He were in central Pennsylvania instead of in Galilee, He'd probably hang with other construction workers outside the 7-11 in his stained t-shirt and work jeans.  And that's Jesus; the Father peers out at me through the eyes those who are, for whatever reason, currently unable to help themselves.  I think of that when I'm around people who are annoyingly incompetent: I think, "God's watching me now".

But lately, when I think about this passage, I think of how God realizes that most of our volunteer work seems senseless or pointless once we're actually doing it.  Long, long ago I used to volunteer with our local Hospice; my job was to sit with patients so that their families could take a break.  Most of the time, my patients would be asleep the whole time I was there.  Sometimes, there would be a visiting nurse who would shoo me into another room for an hour so she could work with the patient, and I'd sit in some living room or nursing home lobby, grading my calculus papers.  I was completely superfluous, not a happy feeling for a hyper-efficient-wanna-be like me.  So I completely identify with those guys asking, "when the heck did I help you, Lord?"

At any rate, when our local emergency women's homeless shelter sent around an email begging for volunteers so they could keep their doors open this week -- this week that happens to be the last remaining week of break so I'm not tied down by teaching/committees/meetings -- I figured it was time for me to go.   I am one of the worst people I know at staying up late: I pop out of bed at 5:50 a.m. each morning and hit the ground running (sometimes literally), but by 9:00 p.m. at night, there's this giant cotton cloud wrapping itself around the neurons in my skull, and by 10:00 p.m. I'm an evil zombie.  So I'm not a great overnight helper.  Still, they asked for me, so I said yes.

I've done overnights with this Homeless Shelter before.   Several years ago, N-son came to "help", too, and he loved it so much that he begged to be allowed to stay at the homeless shelter again.  (Some kind of mom I am, huh?)  So I know a bit of the drill.  We check women in at 7:30; lights out at 9:30.  Before my first time volunteering here, I would have imagined lots of noise and drama, but the truth is that most people just want to get to sleep.  It's cold outside; it's warm in here.

The women are a mix of everything you might expect.  Donna is a sweet but also a bats-in-her-belfry kind of woman, who asks me about all the noises in her sensory deprivation chamber.  A mother-daughter team explain to me why they're going back and forth from the shelter to the laundromat: "We're homeless, but honey, we don't want to look like we're homeless!"  There's the very very smelly woman.  There's a woman pregnant with twins, and she walks around looking a bit scared.  There's a woman here for the first time ever, who had to leave a bad situation, who is looking for reassurance that somehow this is okay:  "you know, I thought this was going to be awful, but it's actually pretty nice.  I've got a job interview tomorrow, so hopefully this will just give me a time to get back on my feet."

At 9:00 p.m. we close the doors.  At 9:30, lights out.  Shayna, the woman in charge of the shelter looks at me, and I guess she sees the neuron-cloud-zombie phase overtaking me, so she says, "Why don't you get some sleep?  I can take it from here."   I am, as I feared, completely superfluous again.  I pull out my mat, roll up in my comforter, and go down for the count.

But at 5:00 a.m the next morning, I pop awake.  There are loud sounds of snoring all around me.  I get up and start the coffee.  I put out donuts.  At 5:30 we start waking the women; they all have to leave the building by 6:45.  As they wake up, I stand behind food counter.  My job is to hand out sugar, but not too much sugar because apparently that can be a problem.  Yeah.

One woman needs help finding her Lithium and other meds.  Another one needs an outlet to charge her cell phone.  Two women ask for socks, which I find in a drawer next to mittens.  Another woman really really needs a tampon and some pads.  The woman with the job interview, she just wants to talk to someone who believes she's still okay.  And then one woman holds up her empty cup to me.

"You want coffee?" I ask her, pointing to the pots on the counter.  
"No, tea." She motions to the water cooler/heater behind me.  "Could you give me a cup of hot water?"

And that's it; the one moment I'd been waiting for all night.  Because to her, this was maybe just a cup of hot water; but for me, a tad wonky from lack of sleep and inclined toward the mystical, this was a Holy moment.

I know that spending one night at the shelter doesn't make me a hero; it didn't transform lives or stop homelessness or heal the lame.  Last night, I slept again in my own bed.  This morning, I popped awake to see the snow coming down outside my windows.  It's probably snowing on Donna in her noisy sensory deprivation chamber right now.   The night I spent at the shelter might not actually make any difference at all, but I'm glad I did it anyway.


Now that we're entering the coldest months of the year, emergency homeless shelters around the country are looking for help:  donations of toiletries and sanitary items, but also people willing to hang out and help, even for just one night.  See http://www.homelessshelterdirectory.org/ 

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