Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Homeless Season

It happens every year at this time, suddenly there are homeless people in our community. Thanksgiving rolls around and the phones start ringing:
“We’d like to come volunteer at the homeless shelter,” or
“I’d like to bring my child to help serve a meal this week, to help him understand how fortunate he is,” or
“My group would like to cook a meal this week.”
Good thing you’ve called now, because this is the only time of year people are homeless. This is the only time of year we need volunteers at the homeless shelter. This is the only time of year that we allow parents to teach their children about poverty in America. This is the only time of year there are needs not being met in our community.

Perhaps there is just a bit of cynicism in my voice right now. On some level I’m sure I should be grateful that people recognize the homeless at all. Most of us spend this time in our lives worrying about how much we’ll be able to spend for Christmas without going too much into debt and wondering if we’ll be able to pay it off by Easter, or at least next Thanksgiving. How can we think about folks whose only gifts will be those provided by charity? So shouldn’t I be thankful that some people actually think about their less fortunate neighbors, even if it is only once a year?

Of course the answer is yes. I should be (and occasionally am) thankful that there are people who can leave their self-absorbed lives for a week. There was a time in my life when I couldn’t. There was a time in my life when all I knew was me and mine. Oh sure, I’d send off a few checks to “my favorite charities” and drop my change into the bell-ringer’s bucket, but I never took my kids to the homeless shelter, never volunteered to cook or serve a meal to people I didn’t know. I’m one of those who didn’t think about people being homeless in my community. Homeless people lived in New York, or LA – not my hometown. And if I did give it any thought, it certainly wasn’t that I needed to do anything, after all, weren’t there people whose calling was to do that sort of thing?

It’s funny, that idea about a “calling.” I hear people talk now about my “calling” to work with the poor. I never heard a voice telling me to work with the poor. I had moved and couldn’t find a job, so when I asked the locals about volunteer opportunities they told me about the homeless shelter. After a brief volunteer stint (I worked in the garden, then at the desk – I never served a meal!) I was asked to work part-time which has led to full-time. My “calling” is completely accidental on my part. But then again, anything I’ve done that has a semblance of good has not come from me but from a power greater than myself.

So why does it upset me that we get so many calls this time of year? Probably because like most reformers, now that I’ve seen the light I think everybody should get on board! I’ve been enlightened and I want the world to see the light! Well, at least those in my community, if not the world. I don’t want folks to miss out on the joy of true giving, which I now understand to mean giving of my time, my precious time.

Thus the frustration under the frustration is really hidden fear. Fear in the form of regret that I didn’t do this sooner knowing now how absolutely life-giving it is. And fear that I don’t know how to encourage my fellow pilgrims to join me on this road all through the year, not just during Homeless Season. Album