One afternoon last week, a married couple came into the lobby of our ministry with a letter in hand. I recognize the letter by its envelope. It’s from the local Traveler’s Aid society. I see a lot of these letters. They are written after an individual or family have appealed through this aid society for emergency funds to travel to a destination by Greyhound where they will have support. It could be to a family member, to a friend, or to one’s own apartment, assuming someone is at a phone number nearby to verify. The letter tells me that they are stranded here in St. Louis and need support to afford a trip home. The Travelers Aid Society provides the voucher to the bus station and we are one of a handful of organizations, working together, who contribute to the fare. Depending on where they are going it can be quite expensive. Quite frankly, there are times when we have no funds at all to assist and the person has to stay until they can get a job and make enough money to travel on. And sometimes that’s not possible because of their disability. When I saw this married couple I stepped aside to meet with them personally.
The woman speaking told me of how a church in Colorado had all but $90 raised to get them to South Carolina. It wasn’t enough so they settled on St. Louis. I explained that we had some, but not all of the money to send both of them the rest of the way. And upon hearing that we could not get them on a bus that day she burst into tears. I try to be compassionate and measured in these situations. I don’t want to seem uncaring, and I don’t want to be overly sensitive. It’s not easy. I begin listing possible options for further assistance. I give the name and location and contact person of another church that assists. I point out that the amount they need to raise is for a Monday through Thursday bus ticket. She’s still crying. She wants on that bus now.
Finally I mention that we could provide shelter through the weekend, though we weren’t set up to accommodate couples. And this is when the conversation really changed. “Nuh uh, I’m staying with my husband. I’d rather sleep in the street. No way.” I politely told them that this would take time and that the choice was theirs. Then after processing their paperwork, I walked away.
“I’d rather sleep in the street.” The words now ring in my ears. Should I be offended when people tell me this? Should I consider them ungrateful? Should it make me doubt the sincerity of their need?
I really didn’t think much about it when it was spoken. But its just that I’ve heard these words so often repeated about our shelter and also other shelters. I know this couple have never met me before. They’ve never stayed for shelter here. They don’t know anything about it really. But when I mention “shelter” they recoil. They can’t be separated as a couple.
I understand their fears, I really do. If it were me in a strange city, appealing for help from a church I don’t know, stranded and scared, I might feel the same way, so I sympathize. But my sympathies won’t keep them safe from these cruel streets. When I think of the words of Jesus, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” I believe that my offer of shelter, though refused, is what I would want another to offer me. But what I also realize about the words of Jesus is that others are very different from myself. The good I would do may not be received as the good by them at all. Some people will not want an encounter for their good. They just want some quick cash.
Every house, be it a church or a family home, has rules and social guidelines. No smoking, drinking, drugs, weapons, fighting, cursing, etc. Someone has to clean the house. Someone has to attend to the food pantry and to the money. If the house is to survive someone has to care for it. In community, which is what our church is, an intentional community, we agree that we are each responsible not only for our own behavior but for the good of the house overall. So when something needs doing we all pitch in, albeit in different ways.
I’ve never looked down on anyone who refused to live in community. It’s a difficult life. It took many years of living in community for me to learn to ask for help. I’ve always wanted to do everything for myself. I just didn’t have the patience for letting someone else attend to my needs, not when I could get it myself. So I can sympathize with people who don’t like asking for help, and then refuse the help that’s offered.
But just because I understand these things, doesn’t mean that as one who offers the gift I will value the gift less, or will want to alter the gift because not everyone wants it. The gift of shelter is not for everyone, I know that. But many people do accept and appreciate it. They prefer to have a roof over their heads and they don’t consider it an indignity for it to be a free roof. They actually enjoy the experience and they have a degree of comfort in it for a time. They know its not the same as their own home, but it will do for now. And on that day when they do get their own place, I’m rejoicing for them.
Giving and receiving in this context is itself a gift. It’s a gift because life itself, every day is a gift from God. I cannot give what I do not myself have. And I cannot appreciate what I have unless I realize it is a gift.
Along with the gift of shelter come many other gifts. Food, prescription assistance, reading glasses, bus tickets, blankets, hygiene kits, and clothing. We give them because we receive them and receive them because we give them. We learned that last year we received far more in In-Kind donations (things people give with monetary value but that are not money, like clothes) than in cash. Those types of donations involve a wealth of people to receive them and process them and redistribute them. It’s the difference between having a pile of rags or a rack of neatly hung clothes to offer. When I consider that fact, I realize that NLEC is engaged in a life affirming work that appears unsettled all the time. We’re always a little unraveled. But I’d rather be unraveled than locked up tight.