So there I sat. At this meeting with other social service professionals discussing the ups and downs of shelter life. The joys and the sorrows of sharing life in a unique way with people in the midst of crisis and transition.
It’s odd really. How people from all different backgrounds can suddenly find themselves sharing bathrooms, and laundry rooms, and refrigerators so suddenly.
There are great positives that come out of it—like the knowing support that can come from others in a shelter or the sharing of resources and experience by people who may be a little further down the road to recovery. There are times that kids make friends and know they are not alone. There are times men reunite with families because of the encouragement from brotherly friends at a shelter.
There are also great difficulties that arise—if it is a family shelter there often is a clash in bedtimes and parenting styles and timeout corners or in any type of shelter the sharing of space and utensils and a TV and just air can get to you after a while. There are times when one person’s trauma triggers someone else’s. There are times of relapse, and grief shared, and when one person’s definition of clean does not match with another’s.
It is here, in this strange and beautiful and unexpected shared space that we choose to serve. I like to remind staff and guests that no one ever grew up saying that they wanted to live at a shelter—and, if we are honest, no one (at least that I know of) grew up saying that they wanted to work at a shelter either. And yet, here we all are—and I would venture to say it is not by mere accident either. God’s fingerprints are all over it.
At this meeting though, I, as far as I knew, was the only believer. The only representative of a faith-based shelter. And so, when it was my turn to share, I wondered and prayed, do I share completely? Do I share about servant leadership, not because that is what the business books suggest, but because that is what Jesus taught? Do I share about each person, including ourselves, having imago dei in them, having the image of God, and this is a reminder that we need to treat each with the utmost dignity and respect, however marred and fuzzy that image is? Do I share about however hard shelter life is, God can and does often, use the difficult relationships there to bring healing? Do I share about how just the fact so much space is shared can be redemptively used for people struggling with addiction to not isolate and relapse?
“Yes.” I started. “Shelter life can be so hard and difficult, yet I also think there is much strength in the fact it is community, that people have to work together to share space effectively. As staff, I think that one of the hardest things in shelter life is that each day when we walk onto campus, we enter not just a job, not just a workplace, but we enter a community. And as such, we play a part in that community. As staff, we can think that we set the tone for the community or that we “create” community, but I think more so, we are participants in that community. And we must enter in such a way as to remember that we need to be just as ready to be transformed by the community as we are to transform it. We need to be just as ready to ask for forgiveness for something we have done, as we are to help facilitate conflict resolution. We need to be a reconciling people in community, but that needs to start with us, with our relationships, with our example.
“One of the struggles of shelter life is the growing dynamic of “us vs. them” between staff and guests. And I know that we do not often speak of it, but it just happens, between the rule-makers and the supposed rule-followers, between the people in the office and the people assigned beds, between the database enterers and the people in the database. And yet, at the end of the day, we all can experience poverty. We all can experience relational brokenness. We all need healing. We all need hope.”
In my head I am saying, the Gospel is the Great-Equalizer! At the foot of the cross, we all come with nothing but our sinful, broken, impoverished selves. We must remember this at the shelter where it may seem that one group has needs and the other has it all together. We must remember God’s incredible grace with us.
But I don’t say that outloud, instead, I say, praying, “At the shelter I work at we try to remind each other that we often need to ask for forgiveness ourselves, that we do wrong, and can be difficult at times. In our context, we remind each other of the Grace extended to us, the Hope that we have and want to share with others, the things we have received and do not deserve. In some relapse prevention programs, it is said, ‘This is the irony, it is in relationships that we have experienced the greatest wounding, and it is in relationships we will experience the greatest healing.’” There are knowing nods around the table so I decide to continue, bolder, “First and foremost this includes our relationship with the Lord and then also our relationships with each other, and the rest of the community, we were never meant to do life alone. And that I think is one of the strengths of shelter life, it is near impossible to ‘do life alone’ in a shelter of 50 plus people.”
Lord, let us be a reconciling people. Let us be a reaching-out people. A people that live out the real healing of messy community. Let us in our work for justice, in our work with the ‘materially’ poor, not forget that we too experience poverty and that we are all in need of the Gospel. Help us to remember Jesus’ words “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Grow us in awareness of our poverty of spirit. While at the same time, God, please increase our boldness in sharing our faith with other justice-seekers that do not know You yet. Help us to point to You as hope and redemption and the ultimate Healer of the broken—whether that be hearts, relationships or systems. We thank You for giving us the endurance for this work. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
(All views expressed in this blog are solely those of myself, Bridget. I do not speak for my family, my workplace, my church, my denomination, or for God. Names and identifying features of people in the stories of this blog have been changed to protect their privacy and confidentiality.)