There was no audible voice, no specific directive, just a nudge on my heart.
But the nudge was strong; so strong I knew immediately what my answer would be:
It took a week to commit, to finally answer the email. But despite my reservations, my fears, my lack of free time, I indeed said yes. I would be happy to help.
Because if I’ve learned anything in the last 10 years, it’s to follow the nudges God places on my heart. So when I got the email request for summer volunteers, I knew in my heart this was something I needed to do.
And that is how I began working with the homeless women of Wheeler Mission this summer.
The program I volunteered with is called Building A Rainbow and it is through the Indiana Writers Center. Together teachers, interns and volunteers offer creative writing classes to at-risk kids, the elderly and now the homeless.
So okay, this is not so unusual. Lots of people work with the homeless, right? But here’s a secret:
For all the ways in which I’ve served, for all the volunteering I’ve done in my lifetime (which is a lot-just ask my friend Susie!), I’ve never before worked with the homeless. Ever. Why, you ask? Dare I admit, dare I tell you the real reason?
Here it is: Fear.
There is a part of me that has been fearful of homeless people. I honestly don’t know. I can only guess it’s because of my perceptions, of what I’ve been told by society.
The homeless are alcoholics.
The homeless are drug addicts.
The homeless are mentally ill.
And then there’s this one:
The homeless don’t want to be in a part of society, they choose this lifestyle.
There’s no doubt that there is some truth in (at least some of) these statements. Those who have lost their homes, have lost their way. For whatever reason, they have experienced hard times and hit rock bottom, and not just financially. The lack of finances may likely be a consequence of other, bigger, problems. Yet here’s something no one ever told me, a truth I learned when I finally stepped out of my comfortable world and into their not so comfortable one:
The homeless are people.
People who were once children.
People who once harbored dreams as big as my own.
People who have a family.
Who once had a job.
People who once had hope, but lost it in their fight to survive.
And when it all fell apart, by God’s grace some of them found their way to Wheeler Missions.
My task as a volunteer was to encourage the women to write. To help them share their stories so that others can understand the world in which they have lived. To assist in bridging the gap between those of us with, and those without. A gap I most certainly have stood in the middle of. The stories will be published in a book by INwords.
I’ll admit, I was a little terrified on day one. First of all, I was lost and late as I left suburbia for this inner-city mission. But as soon as we got started, I was all in. These women were kind, intelligent and more than willing to share their stories.
I learned so much about them. Many of them had rough childhoods. Despite this, a number of them went on to college and became gainfully employed. But things like abuse, addiction (theirs or someone else’s) and a lack of support from family led them to spiral downward. It’s a lot easier to take the wrong path when it’s all you’ve ever seen or known. But now they want more. All of them want desperately to get back on their feet. To have a a job, a home, a garden; they want to leave a positive legacy for their children.
These women had stories to tell.
These women had experienced hardships I cannot begin to fathom.
These women could write, and write well.
I couldn’t help but realize that if had I been born into their circumstances, I might not be so strong. I too, might have lost my way.
One day I talked to the ladies about food. We write during their lunch and the food they serve at the mission isn’t much different from school cafeteria food. We’d been bringing cookies for them, but lots of organizations donated sweets regularly and I wondered if we might bring something else. And then an idea came to mind: fruit!
Fresh fruit is a daily staple in my household, but I recognize the expense, the labor it takes to prepare it and how unlikely it is that these women ever get it. So I asked one of our regulars, Ty, a poet with the most wonderful cadence, if she thought people would like to eat fruit.
“Yea, sure,” she said, “Fruit would be good.”
So I tucked the thought away in my brain. But life got busy and I never got around to buying, preparing and bringing fruit to our class. But guess what? It didn’t matter, because Ty did.
Ty, the homeless woman attempting to get back on her feet, Ty the woman with next to nothing, Ty who was once a chef, brought the most beautiful, fresh, glorious bowl of fruit to our class for all to share. Mangos and bananas and Kiwi and apple; lovingly sliced, lovingly served.
I learned that day that she works three jobs. That she is saving her money so she can pay her deposit on her apartment, her first month’s rent, get some furniture. It takes a lot of money just to get started in life.
So yes, I answered the nudge and I am so grateful that I did. I thought God wanted me to give of myself but instead I was the one on the receiving end.
The woman who has nothing gave me something. A gift. Not just in the form of fruit, but a gift from the heart.
From Ty I learned that even when I have nothing, I can give something.
From all the women I learned that when I let go of stereotypes and judgments, I can connect with another, despite our differences.
In this life, we each have struggles, hopes and dreams. And we often land in very different places, sometimes because of our choices, and sometimes despite them. But beneath it all, beneath the color of our skin, the money in our bank account, the clothes on our back, we are all essentially the same. We are human.
God’s nudges aren’t always about obedience or duty or adding a check mark to my list (never about this last one). Sometimes his nudges are meant for us, to show us in a way we cannot ever predict just exactly what love is: giving of ourselves and receiving more than we can imagine. And it starts with a yes.
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” 1 John 4:18