I thought I had something to offer her but it turned out she had so much more to offer me.
Two Saturdays a month, our church provides lunch to the local homeless and migrant workers. Today was our small group’s turn to prepare, serve and share the meal.
Confession. While, in theory, I support this charitable service and believe in teaching our kids firsthand to serve and appreciate everything we have, in practice, the Saturdays we’re to help always feel like the busiest, most inconvenient, already overbooked Saturdays. So either I take care of other business or I go to church with a begrudging heart. But Every Single Time I put my own agenda down for a few hours and go serve, I end up incredibly blessed and humbled for having gone. Today was no different.
Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:6-7)
Today I met a homeless woman named Lisa. She was young (maybe late 20’s, early 30’s), had light brown hair, a pretty face, quiet demeanor, and a sweet, shy smile. As I served her a plate and sat down beside her, I tried to strike up a casual conversation but was suddenly very conscious of how difficult it was deciding what to say or not say. After all, I could ask if she “lives” (albeit on the streets) nearby, if she grew up in the area, if she has family, if she has some work (even if part-time), how she came to be homeless, how she moves about…, but then it might feel like some kind of interrogation rather than a friendly chat over lunch. But if I didn’t ask questions, what then? Would I talk about myself? My comfy little life with husband and kids, a roof over our heads, a fridge full of food, and busy schedules doing things we complain about but are fortunate to have the time, money and means to do? Would I talk about God, who provides but, in His unknowable will and infinite wisdom, not to everyone the same?
Instead, I asked Lisa a few questions about her life to gauge how comfortable she was sharing (she migrated from Santa Monica, works part-time “somewhere nearby”, and suffers from MS, exacerbated by any surges in stress), introduced her to my fellow servers, replenished her plate when I saw she’d devoured her food and seemed shy to ask for seconds, and joked loudly with “the funny man” in our group to put her at ease, show her I’m human too, and see her smile. That shy smile alone made today worthwhile. I hope she comes back again.
And last time, I met a homeless woman named Shannon – also young (maybe early 30’s), glasses, surprisingly clean, dressed in spotless, preppy clothing, her blond hair smooth and brushed. She didn’t “look” either homeless or like a migrant worker, and I’d never seen her before so I didn’t think she was a regular church member either. As I sat next to her and struck up a conversation, she opened up. She lives behind the adjacent library. She has family but doesn’t expect them to take care of her at this age. She has a cellphone from the State, which she charges anywhere and any opportunity she can. She uses it to try to find work but hits a roadblock whenever prospective employers see there’s no return address on her job application. She alluded to some mental illness but didn’t specify, and I couldn’t tell, what it might be. As I listened, it was all a bit surreal. I was awed by how normal Shannon seemed and yet how different our lives were, through no merit or fault of our own. I was humbled and saddened but didn’t want to show her that. How could we converse as friends would? I couldn’t think of what small details I could share about my life that wouldn’t seem, however unintentionally, condescending, unrelatable, or unfair. Yet it seemed Shannon enjoyed talking with me, not because of who I am but because someone was asking about her, engaging with her, treating her like a human being. Because really, that’s what she is. That’s what we all are. When stripped of all our pretenses, education, privileges and material possessions, we’re all the same. At the heart of hearts, we just want to relate to someone, feel loved…or even just acknowledged.
Today was a good day. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to grumbling, reluctant Anita.