Spending an evening at a shelter for homeless women was not my idea, but when a friend asked, I was perfectly willing to tag along.
Although the winter was still young, the cold was harsh. I nearly ran from the comfort of our car to the warmth of the church annex that had, for years, opened its doors as a refuge from the night.
The director, Christy, efficiently assigned tasks—to set the floor with foam mats and blankets as one would set a table, to layout on a buffet table plastic forks, paper plates, and the donated leftovers that filled the refrigerator. When the women arrived, we would help serve the food.
Christy assured me that most of the women, the "regulars," had spent the day inside at one of several centers, but there were always the few who just appeared—seeming to have no history more concrete than their names.
My three hours at the shelter were not filled with dramatic scenes. From a corner of the large sleeping area, I helped serve dinner to 30 women who ate their substantial but bland meal, sitting cross-legged on their sleeping mats. Except for two boisterously irrational women, they talked little. By nine o'clock, many were bedding down for the night.
"Homeless." As I did the dishes, still within sight of the women, the word took on a personal meaning. These women slept here, but every morning when they left, they had to carry their possessions with them.
Suddenly I was overwhelmed with gratitude for my nightgowns, for my very own pillow, for my hand-picked dining room chairs. "Lord," I silently prayed as I walked to Christy's office to say good night, "thank you. Thank you—that I'm not one of them."
Christy met me in the hallway and interrupted my pharisaical thoughts with her own gratitude for my help. I asked her about certain women who had caught my attention.
Routy Rachel, Christy explained, had a Ph.D. in art history. Gradually her mind had slipped out of her own grasp. Ester, who had talked to herself all evening, was the mother of five children. She was a midwestern farmer's wife—until her life crumbled around her. Christy didn't know much about Carol, who had lain on her back for more than an hour, reading her King James Version Bible. Marla, who had seemed sullen, was a trained soprano who occasionally enjoyed serenading the rest of the group.
Only after I walked back out into the night air did the women's stories unsettle me. Their paths had too much in common with mine. In a sense, I was one of them, a mother's daughter. Vulnerable. A sinner in need of grace.
I remember hearing an interview with Mitch Snyder, who was director of a large shelter for the homeless. I hadn't liked what I had heard and had put it out of my mind until this particular cold night. Snyder had said that, in years past, he had been interviewed by more than one reporter who had later shown in on his doorstep—jobless, penniless, homeless.
Since then I have been more aware of the uprooted Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Latin American refugees who live in my neighborhood, who ride my bus. War, political change, economic collapse—conditions over which they had no control—destroyed their lifestyle and stole their ability to communicate easily and thus to work efficiently. My thoughts have frightened me. My comfortable world, my secure home, is not guaranteed.
At the sight of the outstretched hand of a city beggar, I have always grown uncomfortable. Until recently, I have thought it was because of Jesus' warning in Matthew 25:45: "Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these [the hungry, thirsty, unclothed, homeless], you did not do for me."
But since I spent an evening at the women's shelter, I see that Matthew 25 is only the partial cause of my discomfort. I am uncomfortable because I see the beggar as myself—or my very own brother or mother or father. And I cannot think of a homeless or hungry woman in such personal terms without a reversal in the way I give my thanks.
The difference between "Thank you that I'm not one of them" and "Thank you for the grace you have shown to me, and help me to mirror your grace to others' may, at first, seem slight. But the second is for me a wholly new mindset that makes me want to reach out, that reduces my discomfort around those who have less than I, and, surprisingly, that reduces my fear of a future that is unknown. Why? Because even though I know I have no insurance policy against war and famine or sickness, I know I have a God who does not forget his own.
For that, I thank him also.
This article was originally published in the January 6, 1987, issue of Christianity Today. Evelyn Bence is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Virginia. Her books include Prayers for Girlfriends and Sisters and Me (Vine, 1999), and Quiet Moments With Hildegard and the Women Mystics (Charis, 1999).
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