Wednesday, April 16, 2008

On Housing the Homeless...

This week is an unusual one for me. Whereas I usually spend a good portion of my work day in my office at church and don't usually stay in the building past 9:30 or 10:00 p.m. (And that's only if I have a meeting), this week I am virtually living at church, with th exception of a few hours in the late morning and early afternoon when I go home to sleep. This is because my church is housing homeless people for a week, and I am in charge of staffing this project. The homeless people arrive at 5:30 or so each day, we have dinner, activities (movies, bingo, card games, etc.) lights out at 11 (for them). In the morning we serve breakfast and hand out a bag lunch. A bus comes to pick up our guests at about 7:30 a.m. and then they are off to Downtown Detroit where they work, look for work, or stay in a day shelter to return again at 5:30 p.m.

For me, the housing the homeless week has been very enjoyable work, both in the preparation of the previous few weeks and then this week itself. I have enjoyed working with the other churches that we have bought in to help with dinners. I have had fun coordinating the making of lunches, the preparing of snacks, the planning of activities, the collection of toilietry kits, the staying up most of the night. This week has reminded me why I became a pastor: I love to serve God's people, and (even more) I love to help others serve God's people. There is one thing, however, that worried me about participating in this week from the very beginning, and that is how the experience would affect me emotionally. Since I was a little girl, the idea that some people do not have homes to sleep in at night has affected me deeply. Even though I have since "grown up" and learned that "that's the way life is," I was still a little nervous that I would be so saddened by the stories of the people and the reality of homelessness in our country that I would be deeply, deeply troubled all week. This has happened to me before. Soon after I moved to Detroit, I ran into a homeless woman who was having a migraine headache. Since I get migraines, I know how awful they can be. I couldn't imagine suffering one on the street. She asked me for Excederine and grapes. I was very upset over her story for at least a week. I still think of her when I eat grapes.To try and guard against becoming too overwhelmed with the reality of homelessness, my plan was to be friendly and welcoming to the guests, but intentionally stay away from asking to much about their individual situations and inviting conversation about their specific needs and stories. My plan hasn't worked.

One by one this week many of the guests have stopped me in the halls as I have been scooting from the kitchen to the dining room caring for food and entertainment needs. "Pastor, can I talk to you for a few minutes?" or "Pastor, can I see you?" Though I tried to steer clear of such conversations I haven't resented these requests at all. In fact, I have been honored that the guests feel I am someone to be trusted. For the most part, the guests just want someone to hear them out, to listen. (Don't we all?) The surprise for me in all of the conversations this week has been how much hope they have shared with me. Whereas I was expecting to feel overwhelmed about homelessness and distrought over its harshness, I have been ministered to by the people I am alleging to serve in unbelievable ways. (How often this happens in life...) A man from the country of Georgia who knows more about early Christian Church history than I do told me all about Saint Nina, and how she brought Christianity to his home country. "You see," he said "Women like you have been doing important work for Christ for a very long time." He also told me about why he is proud to be a Detroiter, how this city is the first city in the world to have a traffic light and a paved road, that we have the second oldest Opera house in the country. "Don't forget," he said "This is not a dead city." Another man made me laugh when I was talking to him about movies. The group has watched a lot of movies and went through the 8 or so we had in the first couple of days. When I told him I would work on finding some more, he responded by saying "Reverend, you're so sweet." and then he paused and said "Excuse me. I don't mean sweet. I mean, you are a very spiritual woman of God!" I told him that calling me "sweet" wasn't a problem for me. In fact, it was quite a high compliment. I have been touched by our guests' concern for one another, how they have sought to protect one another. Though I am not able to honor requests for clothes, shoes, and medicine, many of the requests I have received for those things have come from one guest about another.

I have, of course, been disheartened by some of the stories. People have been telling me about personal tragedies in their lives so painful they don't want to go into details, they have shared how they are overwhelmed by life in the shelter, and the lack of privacy. There is an elderly man with diabetes who often smells of urine who can't get up from his mat, who spends almost the entire time he is here from 5 pm on curled up in a fetal position on his mat. It's not all rosy. There are still questions and heartbreaks. Yet, amazingly, through the grace of God, I have been blessed this week by a group of people who have recognized my call to ministry and have told me every day how blessed they are to know me. I am truly humbled.

1 comment:

April & Vince said...

Thanks for your thoughts. I have felt the same way many times while working in the homeless ministry at Central UMC. It is both a spiritual challenge and spiritually uplifting. Glad to see your blog! I'm going to add you on my online neighborhood. Check out our blog at