This past February, as we have done for years, my daughters and I loaded a crockpot of taco meat, all the fixings, serving utensils, and dessert into the trunk of my SUV. My two busy teens claimed they had too much homework to stay long, so they drove a different car to the nearby town where we’d eat with homeless families.
My daughters and I had long been part of our Catholic parish’s homeless ministry — usually serving a meal every three months — yet this time was different. I was now in charge of the ministry. So not only would I be providing dinner, I’d be staying the night so that the Family Promise staff could sleep in their own beds. I considered an evening in a homeless shelter a welcome respite from my own domestic drama. Five months earlier I had filed for divorce, yet my husband of 23 years refused to move out.
That night my daughters and I were the do-gooders. By all appearances, we were a happy, successful family helping broken ones. But thanks to what our faith leader Pope Francis calls the “Gospel of Encounter” we found in our neighbors — homeless “houseguests” — a holiness that reflected God’s presence and his mercy when we needed it most.
We instead merged into the fast-flowing stream of temporary bonds, bikes, and a blaring TV, setting out the food and announcing that everyone could eat. Some dined in the kitchen, others in the dining room or on the couch by the television. My babysitting girls gravitated to the kids and I sat with the adults, getting my own plate from the cabinet of dishes marked “Volunteers Only.”
The adults readily volunteered their stories over nacho chips: sad and triumphant, distressing and uplifting, relatable and foreign, and always deeply personal. Justin and Naomi gave me the good news they’d be moving into an apartment with their 9-year-old daughter, Jozalyn, after 3 months—the stay limit—at the shelter. Laina, Randy, and Cheyenne revealed why no one but the children would eat the fruit salad dropped off by another volunteer: the poppy seeds could yield a false-positive drug test. In the next room I heard my girls quizzing the grade schoolers about their favorite subjects and sharing theirs. I shared a little of our family’s story, too.
One of the younger moms barely took notice of her 3-year-old, but it did not matter as he was now a true brother in the tricycle posse. Her 18-month-old daughter, streetwise already in her trust of daycare teachers, social workers, and total strangers helping one night at a homeless shelter, raised her arms in the universal sign of “pick me up.” I did and carried her over to my daughters and other kids at the craft table. My teenagers, once in a hurry to leave, were now too busy painting, reading books, and making origami to care. But by 8 p.m. they said goodbye reluctantly, explaining to their charges it was bedtime by the rules of the shelter. It was this way every time.
Serving dishes in the trunk, my girls drove away as we always do, aware that one evening’s kindness was at best a band-aid. Try as we might to avoid it, however, our bodies—affluent, organically nourished, health insured, and defined as part of a whole, happy family—seemed determined to contort themselves into self-congratulatory pats on the back. In a few days’ time, the evenings’ names, affiliations, and stories would be only memories, replaced by to-do lists, sports schedules, and project deadlines.
Shortly after the kid curfew, Patty padded down the stairs by the front door wearing slippers, fleece pajamas, and a ski coat. She apologized for breaking the rules a bit to get in one last smoke on the wrap-around porch, but I said it was okay. She explained that she had custody of several grandchildren, bringing each home as drug-addicted infants. She kept talking as I attempted to read a book to her 4-year-old grandson, Kaegan. She tried to teach her children right from wrong, she told me, but they took the wrong paths. Her sister died a year ago, and she still mourned her. She recently left her husband after years of abuse and living with his alcoholism.
Then, when she realized I was the evening’s “overnight host” she asked, “What does your husband think about you doing this?” I curbed the impulse to answer “I really don’t care,” and instead explained my own family’s challenges. In other words, I said, she and I had more in common than she might think.
When she finally ascended the stairs again with the little boy, I locked all the doors, ending with the one to the volunteer office that was also as my room for the night. I set the alarm, but just minutes later, heard a soft knock at my door. It was Laina. She explained that Keira and her two teen sons had not yet come home from fetching their family’s only wage-earner, grandma, from her third-shift job a half-hour away. I turned off the alarm, unlocked my door and the front door. The family returned at 10 p.m. and ate a late dinner I had saved for them.
I knew Laina had met Keira only a few days earlier, but in their need, they were sisters. Yes, this loose affiliation of humans—six groups of related DNA and me—were busted, broken, neglected, wounded, and striving. Holding us all together was something that makes families work even when they are far from perfect: love. This lot was a caring family, even if one of circumstance.
Pope Francis, in Gaudete et Exsultate, reminds us that the humblest among us “share in Christ’s prophetic office, spreading abroad a living witness to him.” No longer was I the living witness or the helper, but instead the helped.
As I said my evening prayers, the words of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy rang truer than ever before:
“Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless and the treasury of compassion inexhaustible, look kindly upon us and increase Your mercy in us. That in difficult moments we might not despair nor become despondent, but with great confidence submit ourselves to Your holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself.”
Love. Mercy. Here in a homeless shelter, my family and I had found both. And it was enough.