Yesterday I shared on Facebook that I spent several hours on Christmas night hanging out with folks in an emergency shelter. When I talk about this aspect of my life–the cultivation of community among people who are marginalized or downright ignored by society–I find that friends often respond by praising me for doing a “good deed.”
I don’t want to minimize these compliments because I do truly value the encouragement. At the same time, I feel uncomfortable with lavish compliments for things that seem to be a natural progression of where I’ve found myself in life. Going to the emergency shelter wasn’t some sort of noble act of sacrifice, but rather, an opportunity to spend time with some really cool people. I recognized two faces right away, and by the time I left, I had enjoyed conversations with several more.
I’m thankful that the shelter was open last night because the temperature was way too cold, and the accumulated snow meant that those sleeping outdoors had to deal with freezing wet clothes and puddles on the ground. That’s no way to spend Christmas night…or any other night.
I’m also thankful for the community that shared space in the shelter last night. After dinner, some people went upstairs to watch movies while others played cards. Then a number of us visited, talking about our past experiences (good and bad) with the holiday and random stuff.
It’s hard to convey to those who have not spent much time around folks who are unhoused, but we all have far more in common than we have differences. I feel that they are my brothers and sisters, and I honestly believe that more people would feel the same way if we stopped focusing on our differences.
Unfortunately, the biggest difference is that those who find themselves on the streets don’t have a support network to help out when the going gets tough. I think back to times when I’ve needed financial assistance, and I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t been able to turn to friends and family. Not everyone has those same resources. That doesn’t make me better than others–it means that we need to make greater efforts to take care of one another.
One of my biggest hopes is that we can work together to improve the living conditions of every single person in this world. That starts with treating everyone with dignity and respect instead of using dehumanizing language and pretending like the problem of homelessness doesn’t exist. It’s real, and it causes immense and intense pain for lots of people. They deserve to be treated better.
What I’d like to challenge us to do is to take tangible steps to reduce poverty in the US and around the world. Think about one thing you can do in the near future to reach out to those in your community who are living in poverty. Maybe spend time at a soup kitchen or in another environment where those who are struggling congregate.
If you choose to help out at a non-profit, please consider one other thing. So often, serving lines are clearly divided into the “servers” and the “recipients.” I think that I’ve written elsewhere that there’s a tendency to demarcate which side of the table the “volunteers” are on, and for the table (or even an imaginary barrier) to separate the “haves” and the “have nots.”
Those barriers might make the servers feel safer and more comfortable, but we should start working to remove the structures and ideas that keep us apart. We’re not going to make real progress as long as we’re remaining in those designated areas. It’s when we reach beyond our comfort zone that we begin to understand what others are going through. One new friend I talked with last night agreed with me when I mentioned the awkward looks of pity that I’ve received when others assume that I’m “needy.” It’s a common response, but it can make those who are in the receiving line feel even more isolated and alone.
I don’t have all the answers, and I’m still learning how to relate to others in this world. What I have concluded at this point is that I don’t want to spend my life insulating myself from the challenges that others face. Those of us who are working for a better world shouldn’t be the exceptions, the outliers, the “saints.” We should be the norm. The only way this will happen is if more people commit to joining us. I’ll be writing some more thoughts on how we can achieve this goal, so stay tuned.
And back to last night, I probably received a lot more than I gave of myself. I truly enjoyed the time that I spent at the emergency shelter. I feel blessed to have been welcomed into that community of folks who had nowhere else to go, even though I’m also aware that I had the luxury of driving home and sleeping in my own bed. The shelter is where I needed to be at that moment–it did indeed shelter me from the storm–and the shared community was a gift. For that, I’m thankful.