For a few years now I have gone to the church periodically in the winter months and slept there with the homeless. We place mattresses in the gym and cover them with sheets and blankets. They are fed well and have a quiet, protected night. Most fall asleep after a shower and their bellies are full of warm food. I am usually tired from the workday yet without fail feel surprisingly ok to attend to the various tasks at hand.
What strikes me now as I sit here in the gym foyer and the night winds down is how we tend to see one another. There are conversations that begin awkwardly. Some become relaxed and informative. Others reveal the years of dysfunction and the toll of a chronically homeless existence. There is usually at least one man that is higher maintenance asking for extras, testing boundaries, needing attention. Most are quietly reflective. They are tired and somehow, at least at first, they seem unsure of our true intent.
We’ll all rise early in the morning. The lights will come up. They’ll drink coffee and eat breakfast. The white van will pull up to the gym doors. Heads hanging a little they’ll trudge to the van and climb in. It will be time to go back into their raw, unprotected existence.
Once they are crammed tightly in with their sparse luggage on their laps I’ll stick my head in and tell them that I love them. Without fail there will be weak chorus back to me … “We love you too, sir. Thank you … for everything.” Then I will imagine them exiting the bus down at the bus station and wonder what goes through their minds.
On the way home I’ll feel a little fuzzy from lack of sleep. Funny though … I’ll often sing a hymn or say a prayer out loud as I speed down the expressway back to my family and warm, cozy life. Then I will think of them and know that we are all better for having encountered each other if only for a brief while. I’ll thank God for letting me do this thing that gives me so much more than I could ever give them.