Yesterday, I got out of school and brushed the half foot of snow off my car. I went home and helped my housemate finish up shoveling the driveway and sidewalk. Last night, after taking out the trash, I paused under the awning and took in the winter portrait that was painted before me. It was cool, but without our customary wind, it was nice out. An icy finger had touched the world, leaving trees outlined in silver and the streets glistening with custom-designed flakes.
Winter, I thought, is quite beautiful.
Then I took a few steps and entered my house, where I could view the frozen art from the ease of a comfortable chair. In those few steps, though, a thought came to me.
It doesn’t feel that cold because I have a home, right here, that I can step into. I don’t mind the cold today because I’ve spent very little time in it. If I were homeless, that wouldn’t be the case.
For yet another time in the past week, I considered again difficulties of homelessness.
Homelessness is never something I have seriously feared. In fact, it was within the past couple years that I realized that I’ve never even considered it to be a fear I could have. I live in a rented house shared with other young women and I have a job that pays the bills and loans I’ve accumulated. Yet I’ve always known that even if I lost everything I own, I could always move back home. Through the years, as my siblings and I have grown up, we have found it necessary or best to sometimes move home for a while. We’ve all taken advantage of it, for varying lengths of time. So if I got sick, lost my job, was in an accident, or something devastating happened, I know I would be able to seek the refuge of my parents’ house.
At the time that I was having this not-profound realization, I thought about how others don’t have that support system. What if I was all I truly had? What if I didn’t have parents that were able or willing to help me through rough times? What if I had no siblings or extended family that would let me crash on their couch or put me up for a while as I sorted through my life? The result of these thoughts was immediate anxiety and fear.
In the summer of 2014, I walked the Camino de Santiago. It was 500 miles across northern Spain and I carried all my possessions on my back for just over a month. While it was a beautiful experience, I was sometimes frustrated to always be packing up my things and moving to some place new. I didn’t have a home and I found myself wanting to spend two nights in the same place. Over half way through the walk, it happened when we stayed at a Benedictine pilgrim house. What a joy it was to leave our packs in our room and roam the town, knowing we would be sleeping in the same place that night and didn’t have to carry our packs that day.
Homelessness is not like that experience. It often doesn’t include a bed or a mat to sleep on. You aren’t stopping for a mid-morning cafe con leche or a sit-down lunch on a leisurely day. There is no communal cooking with lots of wine flowing into the evening. There isn’t the knowledge that if something goes wrong, you can use your VISA or ATM card to pull you through the dilemma.
In a minuscule way, I understood the struggle of not having a place of one’s own. I felt a desire to have roots, to remain in one place with a familiar system and order. I understood not having the luxury of a car and using only my feet to get everywhere, even after a long day of walking.
But, in all reality, I have no idea what it would mean to be homeless.
Last week, I went to help decorate a homeless shelter. I had little concerns and fears as I walked in, but mostly I found myself frustrated for feeling so awkward. It is far easier to write a check and donate to an organization rather than to encounter the homeless in the flesh.
“To love God and neighbor is not something abstract, but profoundly concrete: it means seeing in every person and face of the Lord to be served, to serve him concretely. And you are, dear brothers and sisters, in the face of Jesus.” -Pope Francis
I was embarrassed to feel out of sorts and out of place. Instead, I wanted to just interact with the guests as though they were ordinary people. Mentally, I couldn’t help but note the disparity between our lives. My inconvenience of a cool basement bedroom was utterly ridiculous in the face of the cold outdoors as a bedroom.
And I did a laughably small thing: I decorated the kitchen and helped bend the branches of a fake Christmas tree.
There was a man washing dishes in the kitchen. He noticed my arrival and would look over at me every now and then, making a little small talk as I worked. Internally, I was kicking myself for not being able to think of any good questions to ask him. I would comment on how many trips he made to get dirty soup bowls and he would comment on me struggling to, once again, find the end of the roll of tape.
Finally, I was stringing up the last bit of garland and he said, “You should have brought your boyfriend to help you.” I laughed, probably blushed a bit, and said, “Well, if I had one, I would have brought him.” He said he was surprised “a pretty girl like you” didn’t have a boyfriend. I laughed and said, “I’m still young, though, right?” (My one semi-consolation.) He said I was, but that he was alone, too.
Then, he did it. He opened a bit of his heart up to me, someone he didn’t even know.
“My wife died. It was three years ago. She died three days after Christmas.”
And, suddenly, this wasn’t a man doing dishes at a homeless shelter, but he was a man with real struggles and pain. He wasn’t looking for sympathy and he didn’t elaborate with a story. I didn’t ask him to, either. Instead, I told him I was sorry and said it must be very difficult. In a warm kitchen with crumbs on the counters and the heavy aroma of chili, I met a stranger concretely in a brief sharing of the heart.
After leaving the kitchen, I went to the entry way to help finish setting up the trees. Guests from the shelter kept walking by and I wanted to be certain to greet them with a smile, if I could. Because it would have been too easy to just ignore their presence. Excuse me, please. Carry along. We are setting up these trees for you, but we don’t want to actually interact with you. So I would smile as they walked past or move out of the way if they were trying to pass by. In many ways, it was easier to focus on the task at hand (setting up Christmas decorations) than to remember the underlying reason for all of it (the homeless who would be staying there). I tried to force myself to remember this central reason, rather than obsess over the exact angle of the ribbon on the tree.
Once again, I felt a smallness. Yet, once again, I felt a desire to do more. What if I did more than set up a tree? What if I volunteered far more of my time? Not to the idealized homeless person in my mind, but to the actual homeless people that I would encounter. In the midst of their hardship, I want to bestow upon them all kinds of virtues that aren’t necessarily there. I expect gratitude and humility and kindness. But why would I expect it more from them than from my students or co-workers? Rather than set them on a pedestal, I want to concretely encounter them. In the midst of their brokenness, their chaos, their efforts, and their failures. Because that is humanity. They have stories and lives and I choose not to romanticize them because they are real people.
I don’t know how these desires will be lived out, but I want to pursue them. It is not enough to feel sorry for the idea or concept of homelessness. Each of these people staying at the shelter and each person I encounter daily, has the face of Christ, if I have the grace to see it. We are all on the quest for a true home, walking toward the Heavenly kingdom much like I made the trek to Santiago de Compostela: day by day, carrying only what is necessary, walking even if we don’t want to, and journeying to a place that will justify all our suffering and wipe away every tear.
What other homeless pilgrim will you meet on the way today? Whose face will they have?