Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Filling what is empty

I've been volunteering at a local shelter one morning a week. It's a sort of floating church emergency shelter, at a different church every night of the week. Sunday nights/Monday mornings it's at a United Free church down the road from where I live. I'm on mornings because I work too many evenings to do those and frankly, I think my health probably isn't up to the overnights.

The guests are referred from a day centre; the shelter is given a list of people to let in. People not on the list are turned away unless there is space after a certain time. There are rules (no drugs, no alcohol, no weapons), there are boxes to tick. I don't know how I feel about this; I can see the point of trying to make it safe, but how do we help those who, through no fault of their own, cannot tick the right boxes? Lord, have mercy. And yet, the other week I heard another volunteer explaining to one of the guests how to get to the day centre, which boxes to tick. Clearly if there is space we take anyone we can.

The day centre offers hot meals and so we don't do a cooked breakfast; rather it's cereal, toast with jam, tea and coffee, occasionally some leftover dessert from the night before. I spend the morning filling milk jugs, sugar bowls, coffee machines, insulated flasks, the dishwasher, the cupboards. Things spill and I wipe up as I go along, almost unconsciously, a reflex when there is nothing left to fill. I don't talk to people much, and I hope that doesn't make me seem aloof.

There are rules about physical contact, about agreeing to meet guests outside of shelter hours. I'm not sure how I feel about this; I do think loving and kind relationships are important, and that physical contact can be part of that. How horrible must it be to have nobody to hug you? But I'll freely admit I'm also relieved not to have to make the decision, relieved that what I might be willing to give has been put into a nice, safe box. Lord, have mercy.

This past Monday someone asked me if I'd marry him. I declined as politely as I could, aware that I am culturally way out of my depth. Another volunteer said that's fairly normal and is a sign that I'm being accepted. I'm not sure about that, but the conventional dating scene must really suck if you're homeless.

The shelter runs until March.

I don't have anything profound to write about it, not yet.

Maybe there isn't anything profound to say. People are homeless and I've decided to try and help meet some of their immediate needs for food and shelter during a difficult time of year -- in a very safe and cautious and organised and cowardly way -- and that's all there is to it. I don't particularly enjoy or dislike the work itself; I don't come back feeling all aglow with lovingkindness. I come away wishing I could do more, and wondering why the shelter is so warm compared to our house (which is a bit nippy in the mornings), and whether the pregnant woman will get some more stable support once her child is born (does she know the father? is he homeless, too? Is he kind to her?) or whether we're going to be dealing with a baby come January, and reminding myself to bring some jam along next week.


UKViewer said...


While you are unsure of whether your contribution is enough, be reassured that it is. The small things, done in abundance, are enabling for others to make their particular contribution.

I often read of work being done by Churches in Newark, New Jersey, where a mission initiative providing meals on Sundays after service has expanded, due to growing need, to involve other churches of different denominations, who work together to provide the resources to allow the particular church to run their scheme. One could not work without the other, which reminds me very much of St Paul's words when I consider how, individuals seeing a need, responded with inspiration and blind faith, initially with home cooked food taken and reheated, to a scheme where many are involved in food preparation, serving it and with volunteer medics and lawyers joining in to help the deprived, homeless and destitute.

They too have to have safety rules, and also an expectation that users of their service will accept that drugs, alcohol etc are not acceptable. It is a bargaining position, in which one party fulfills and need and the other accepts it unconditionally.

These encounters also provide space for God to work in the lives of all involved - although the aim is not evangelism, sometimes it happens due to the circumstances and goodness of those providing the services interaction with those they help.

So, too, your service is providing and enabling those encounters, which may help someone to move away from their position of homelessness - and even, perhaps accept that the people providing the service, might be witness to something missing in their lives.

I will pray for you in this ministry, for ministry is what it is, that it may develop and allow you to continue to serve as you feel called to do, not by obligation, but by Grace.

Song in my Heart said...

Thank you, UKViewer. "Not by obligation, but by Grace" -- beautiful.