This week our church is hosting our community’s Emergency Winter Shelter. Every day for a week, from about 6:30 pm to about 8:30 am, we welcome up to twenty-five guests into our church. This week is a banner week for our church community. It is the week in the year where everything we say about discipleship and being witnesses for Christ’s love becomes a reality. The week is so important that we try to engage parishioners of all ages, and we partner with other churches and local schools to make the week happen. This is the week where we boldly proclaim our identity and live it with integrity. This is the week where Christ can say about us, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…”[i]
You would think with that kind of buildup, and that clear sense of purpose, every moment we are hosting our guests would be this beautiful, enlightened, perfect moment. While there are certainly beautiful moments, what I noticed about our Winter Shelter week is that it is much more awkward that you might imagine. Up to twenty-five individuals gather together, with unique stories that brought them to this moment of vulnerability and need, and they create a make-shift place of protection for few hours with about twenty volunteers who mostly do not need to worry about where the next meal is coming from or where they will rest their heads. What do you talk about over a shared meal? How do you connect with someone who is bone tired from working, hustling to get to the shelter, and worried about what is next? How do you overcome the very obvious fact that the worlds you are both operating in are diametrically different?
The answers are not super glamorous. When you invite yourself to sit at a table with homeless men and women, sometimes the conversation is superficial, and sometimes things are said that rock your world and remind you of how much privilege you really have. When you long for a human connection with someone who is bone tired, sometimes the most you get is a smile; but more often what you get is a reality check about how brutal homelessness can be, and how many other awful things may be present in their lives. And as you long to overcome the barriers of the two worlds you live in, part of what you have to do is let go of the idea that you can, remembering why Jesus once said it is harder for a person of wealth to get into the kingdom than a camel to fit through the eye of a needle. Winter Shelter Week is hard and awkward because the experience forces us to examine our lives, acknowledge our privilege, and be honest about the amount of work we still have to do.
The good news in all the awkwardness and difficulty is that God’s grace is all around. Providing shelter for a week matters. Acknowledging the humanity of one another matters. And that we are even trying matters. God takes our best intentions, and our humbling week, and grants us moments of beauty: from the almost five-year old who insists on saying goodnight to every guest before going home to bed – and the gracious responses of guests; to the teenager who has the courage to say an extemporaneous blessing over the food, when traditional prayers do not seem to work; to the community – both guests and hosts – who rallies together to protect the physical well-being of all the guests. When Jesus talked about welcoming in strangers and feeding and quenching other’s thirst, he did not warn us how hard it would be. I suspect he knew that the grace we would exchange in the mutual vulnerability would be reward enough.
[i] Matthew 25.35