Moving from the philosophical to the concrete

I will never be able to offer 100 people a meal and a bed each night. I know the beauty of the homeless shelter at which I volunteer on Sundays: it’s warm, it’s clean. It offers beds and meals and hope. I see guests make friendships, and kids get high-fives from staff and other guests. And yeah, there are conflicts and reprimands; messy stuff you get when any humans must share tight quarters. But mostly, it’s safe. And that’s a good thing. Phenomenal staff; putting on my volunteer badge brings me joy.

But after reading “Making Room,” by Christine Pohl, and after reading all the other stuff over the last year, the mission hasn’t yet challenged my limited experience with God’s abundance. Now, yes, miracles happen; providence happens: “Today’s manna,” the phrase written on the board announcing their menu for dinner, speaks to the miracle of providing food for that many guests each night with no governmental aid. Each sunrise and sunset is a miracle, made commonplace by us taking it for granted; they don’t take anything for granted at the shelter. Miracles abound.

But the real, heart-pounding, peculiar, really different way of life, I haven’t found that. Homeless shelters that run on that large scale run effectively thanks to donors and volunteers, and that’s not really peculiar. It’s a blessing, miraculous even, but it’s not peculiar.

The peculiar is in the community-building. The peculiar is in a smaller setting; a home-based setting. And I risk romanticizing it every time I read Dorothy Day or Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove without stepping into some setting that’s challenging.

So this week when I toured another shelter, I felt I’d met my current match. My face was warmed with the heat of that old house, the sunshine coming in the windows. Every night for the last few decades, they’ve welcomed 10 people (six men, four women), each given up to 14 nights of emergency shelter. Sharing time with guests over TV or a board game and over dinner is part of the routine of volunteers. Every night in a house near the Capitol, they serve meals brought in by volunteers. This is peculiar. 

From a philosophical standpoint, I want to move from reading about learning from the poor to actually doing it. From a street-level standpoint, I’m a bit intimidated. I want to learn there; I’m gonna volunteer there once a month, and cook a meal for them once a month, and though this will fix nothing, it may change me.

Last night, “Spiritual Direction” told me it’s OK to feel powerless. Social inequities put people in poverty, and I know this, and I see this, and I don’t want anyone to think I believe I can fix this.

The book’s author, Henri Nouwen, spoke more eloquently about that:

“Alleviating pain and suffering may sometimes be the fruit of our being with those who suffer, but that is not primarily why we are there. Ministry takes courage to be with the sick, the dying, and the poor in their weakness and in our powerlessness. We can’t fix their problems or even answer their questions. We dare to be with others in mutual vulnerability and ministry precisely because God is a God who suffers with us and calls us to gratitude and compassion in the midst of pain. You cannot solve all the world’s problems, but you can be with the people in their problems and questions with your simple presence, trusting that joy also will be found there.”

Anyhow, I’m mostly tired of being philosophical about it. I want to do it.

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