As many of you know, Holy Spirit Church is a leading member of a consortium of local churches and synagogues offering overnight shelter on a rotating monthly basis for homeless women in the Silicon Valley. As a member of our Church’s Men’s Faith Group, I recently had the privilege of helping to serve the Village House – as the program is called – women breakfast. While the three main words in the title above – grace, friendship, and dignity – are not often associated with homelessness, I was able to witness firsthand the profound depth of their power among the women we served.
Most of us have a fairly standard view of the homeless. Shaped by our own experiences in seeing them asking for money at stoplights, pushing their inevitably overflowing grocery carts down the street, or perhaps catching quick glimpses of their tents under freeway overpasses or at the side of the road, it is generally not a positive view. Rarely do we give thought to their plight or the reasons they are living the way they do. If you are like me, I may occasionally give them a dollar or two when asked, but for the most part, I am simply grateful I am not forced to live the same way. Village House changed all of that.
What I witnessed that morning, while still making me grateful for everything I have, also forced me to view the fourteen women who had gathered for breakfast as fellow humans – with all of the strengths, foibles, and likes and dislikes of the rest of us. Without knowing their histories or the reasons for their current condition, the women I shared too brief a time with, were each filled with amazing connections to these three words: grace, friendship, and most important of all, dignity.
With breakfast beginning early at 6:00 am, the women arrived and began gratefully accepting the coffee and eagerly eyeing the casseroles, bacon, and bagels arranged on the table. Despite the hour, I was struck at once by their smiling faces, animated conversations, and genuine ease around us and their fellow sisters in need. Despite their current lot in life, they engaged all in the room without a hint of either their current state or the struggles they may have waiting for them on the horizon. Effusive in their gratitude for what was offered, they seemed genuinely humbled by the offerings in front of them.
Most of all, I was transfixed by their care and concern for each other. I could not help noticing how often they repeated each other’s names during their conversations with each other. Seemingly every sentence or phrase contained their opposite’s name in an obviously endearing way. I had heard before that being homeless frequently meant being nameless as well. After all, when you are on your own on the streets and often devoid of human contact for long periods of time, who says your name? These women recognized both the soothing and deeply humanizing aspects of the simplicity of simply saying each other’s name.
Their concerns for each other also manifested itself in other ways. Aware that one of their group had been hospitalized during the night and had now returned, I watched as several of the women approached their recently stricken friend consoling, patting her arms, and genuinely worried for both her health and where she was going to be during the upcoming day. One woman offered to help her “lay low” today and stay safe. I could only imagine what that might entail as they spent their day back out on the streets.
Their friendship and care for one another even reached out beyond their immediate circle. One of the experienced volunteers at the Church had herself been recently hospitalized. Not wanting to lose the connections she had made with some of the Village House women last year, she called in that morning to chat with “her girls.” As she said hello over the speakerphone, the shared welcomes, best wishes, and laughter as each of them connected or reconnected their friendships was a heartwarming moment to witness.
By far, the most significant moment of the morning for me was perhaps its most seemingly mundane. At the end of each day’s breakfast, the women are allowed to pick up a premade lunch bag for the day. Each lunch includes a sandwich, some type of fruit or vegetable, as well as a drink and chips. As I watched the women pick up their lunches, I saw several of them swap out different items and offer to trade types of chips and fruits with each other. In a few cases, they stated their dislike for the type of sandwich offered and asked for ones without cheese or a different type of meat.
My first thought at hearing these requests for something different was to wonder how people who seemingly had nothing, would not simply accept without question what was being given to them. However, I quickly moved beyond my obviously condescending thought when it began to dawn on me that these women had very few choices in how they were currently living their lives. Without employment, its resultant income, and certainly housing, very few of the real choices each of us have on a daily basis as outcomes of these three things, were available to them. Having the ability and opportunity to get something you really liked as simple as a slice of cheese, was an important and in some small, yet significant way, empowering to them. If you cannot choose much in your life’s current reduced state, why not hang on to some small sliver of humanity and assert your right to choose when it does present itself?
As the final dishes were cleared and the dishwasher loaded, the tables quickly emptied and the women were shuttled on their way to their day – some to a local warming center, some to the train station, and some even went off to jobs. I realized when it was over that while an hour or so with homeless people had hardly made me an expert on the subject or condition, the time I had spent with them was one of the most profound learning experience I had had in years.
For in helping to serve a simple breakfast to homeless women, I learned that to be homeless did not mean you were heartless; that though you were officially classified as being without a home, wherever you are you create your own home and even your own family; and that what mattered most of all was a refusal to be anything less than one of God’s children – full of grace, full of friendship, and full of dignity. For one brief moment at the Village House, fourteen women let us into that family – showing each of us what it truly means to be human – a lesson that I know I will not soon forget.