The table is plain and round. There are five chairs around it, and I take a seat. The rareness of what I’m doing–both in my own life and in the typical life of those around me–isn’t lost on me. It’s me and four women–each one unique and beautiful and homeless.
I’m part of the hospitality ministry at Tabitha, a women’s homeless shelter run by our church. Usually the name of my ministry team is lost on me. I serve by folding clothes and asking for names and finding a pair of pants that will fit; however, sometimes there’s two of us there on the same night. That leaves one of us to go into the main room and be hospitable. Tonight that’s me. I’m always scared and intimidated. I feel rather incompetent to even begin to really love these women. Yet, God nudges me gently and reminds me that I need to stop using service as a means of distance. Their stories need to matter to me. They need to be heard.
The woman to my left immediately reminds me of my grandmother. She’s very old and fragile, but I sense her sweetness and hugability. I ask her what her name is. She tells me. And then she tells me her story. She went bankrupt at 65 and stayed at a different church that took care of her for awhile. Her son and her tried to get back on their feet; and for eleven years, they did. Then the economy collapsed, and many people became desperate. Her and her son were threatened with their very lives until they abandoned the home they were trying to survive in. She’s on the streets at 81. I felt my soul feel sick and choked back tears. Her and her son have become separated. With tears whelming up in her eyes, she told me that she can’t imagine trying to start again at her age. She’s losing her sight and hearing and doesn’t know why.
The woman to my right pipes in to inform me that her life has been horrible. She’s bitter. Very bitter. She’s in her sixties and tells me that people have taken from her until she has nothing left to give. She looks me in the eye and tells me she’s tired of hanging out “with you kids.” I cringe feeling that my naive presence is too much for her. She makes the room feel heavy, but I know she’s expressing things that must be said. I nod and look at her sympathetically as she tells me how angry she is. She tells me to stop patronizing her. I look her in the eye and tell her that I have no desire to patronize her. I know I don’t understand what she’s been through. Part of me wants to be upset, but I’m reminded of the bitterness that exists in my own life.
Rather than being surprised by this women’s bitterness, I feel more surprised that another woman at the tables seems to have none. She wears bright colors. Smiles big. Speaks quietly. She befriended the 81 year old woman and helped her make her bed. She’s been at Tabitha a lot. But a part from the setting we find ourselves in, I would never guess she was homeless.
The other woman at the table quickly reveals to me that she’s probably one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever spoken with. She doesn’t say that, but she looks at me suddenly and asks, “Would you rather be known for how much you’ve suffered or for how happy you’ve been?” Her question startles me. I’m not sure if it’s rhetorical or not, but it becomes clear that she wants an answer. I put the question back to her and she says that people wait to be noticed in their suffering, and they shouldn’t. I listen as three of the women discuss this. Later, this same women tells me about a book she read by a Jewish philosopher. I feel like I’m in a classroom at Gordon. At least 50% of what she’s saying goes over my head, not because it doesn’t makes sense; but because she’s tremendously intelligent. I wonder how she’s arrived here. I ask a personal question, but she tells me she would rather not respond.
Perhaps one of the small gifts of immense suffering is that it strips away the need for frivolous chatter.
I’m exhausted when I leave. I cry all the way home because when I hear their stories, I must ask the question, ‘why them and not me?’ It is only grace that keeps the roles from being reversed. And I’ve done nothing to deserve to be the recipient of that grace; but God responds to me softly,
You’ve been given grace so that you can sit in that chair.