(Names have been changed to ensure privacy.)
Women taking a smoke break lingered outside as we entered the parking lot in our shiny SUV’s. I wondered what they must have been thinking as we unloaded and carried cupcakes, crafts, clothing donations, and musical instruments into their building for our activity night ahead. I felt awkward on our trips to and from the car, attempting small talk along the way. We were there to be a light and to bring joy to the women and children who called Wheeler Mission home, but I felt completely out of place from the moment we pulled in.
After entering the locked building, we made our way to a reception area filled to the brim with bodies and scents – and lots of stares. The children immediately descended upon us with excitement, but we needed time to set up before our activity night could begin. Kim, our leader, directed us to quickly arrange tables – complete with assorted bead bracelets, cupcakes to decorate, coloring sheets, palm fronds, and a makeshift hair and nail salon. Our talented musicians lugged in keyboards, guitars, drums, and amplifiers to provide background music throughout the night, as well as a grand finale sing-a-long. Despite our scurrying to prepare for the night ahead, we took a moment to pause and pray to remember why we were there and also who sent us. We knew it was a divine appointment and later received confirmation from a sweet young elementary-aged girl who looked up at volunteer Marian and said with assurance, “Somebody sent you here.” Marian then asked, “Who?” The child responded, “God and Jesus.” Although we had no idea what God had in store for us that night, this tiny child knew our presence was no coincidence.
When the doors opened, residents immediately flooded in and took their seats. Volunteer Jason gave an enthusiastic summary of the upcoming activities, and within moments there was a beeline to the cupcake table. Frosting and sprinkles covered faces and fingers along with sticky, happy smiles. I planted myself at the palm-frond table and struggled to show my new friends how to bend and twist the fresh branch into the sign of a cross. Resident Linda mastered it at the next table and soon became our teacher. She was happily making crosses for 20+ “grandchildren,” and after a short conversation, it became evident she was the “mother” of the shelter. She shared her story of attending seminary in St. Louis and working with the archbishop. She then told me that she had lost her husband five years earlier. As Linda spoke with peace and an inexplicable joy, I couldn’t help but wonder, especially with the education and faith she possessed, how she ended up in a homeless shelter. But as we continued our conversation it soon became evident that wherever she landed became her ministry. I was certain by the end of the night that God had purposefully placed her in this shelter for however long she would remain on this earth, which sadly may not be much longer. During our conversation, Linda shared how she had recently been released from the hospital and was in need of a pacemaker. “Give it to someone else,” she responded to the doctors. “Jesus has me.” I smiled knowing that He did – whether on earth or in heaven.
I spent most of the evening creating palm crosses over conversation, one ending in tears. Tasha was a mother of seven who shared bits and pieces of her story. When she became emotional I tried to console her, even following her into the hallway where I sat silently on the floor by her side. As she continued to break down, I felt helpless. What did a clueless white girl from Carmel have to offer this homeless mother of seven who told me she would be arrested upon returning home? All I had to give was my time and a listening ear. There were no words, even though I tried to insert nuggets of encouragement throughout the conversation. When she invited me outside to have a more private discussion over a smoke, I politely excused myself and retreated to our group activities. That was the last time I saw Tasha, although she remains in my prayers to this day.
I was emotionally spent when I returned to the group and intentionally sought out a seat next to Linda while she forged on with her cross-making quest. Moments later, the song “Lean on Me” began to play and the whole room immediately broke out in song. In fact, as I glanced around, I noticed that everyone in the room had joined in – many were wrapped in each other’s arms as children danced and banged on tambourines. All were singing at the top of their lungs. “I looked out into the room and saw children of God, both young and old. Everyone present – visitor or resident – had experienced joys and pains in this life,” Musician Dave later said. “But in that snapshot we were all playing, interacting, eating, and making joyful noise together. The Spirit of the living God was present with us all in that moment.”
It truly was a God moment – one that reminded me once again that we need each other to persevere through the trials of life, the seasons of homelessness, and the conversations of despair where no words will soothe. But most of all we need our Lord who speaks to us – all of us – in that still, small voice saying, “Lean on Me.”
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