This spring, #3 and I have been volunteering about three times a month at either the shower-in-laundry place or the homeless-people clothing closet. At S&L we move laundry through the machines, clean showers between users, keep track of who’s in line for a shower next, and make sure the supplies are in order. At the HPCC, we’re back-end. Elderly ladies with a firm disposition for taking no nonsense deal directly with the client; we naive pushovers sort through donations, take a look at the current inventory and decide what to send on to outlying ministries, and get the rest logged in and put away.
This is enjoyable work for many reasons.
It is relaxing. You set aside all your other worries and just focus for a couple hours on getting a useful and manageable task accomplished.
It is companionable. The other volunteers and the clients are interesting, fun people to be with. For my daughter and me, it’s something we can do together, and we end up working more and more as a team.
It is satisfying. You never wonder, “Did that guy really need a shower?” Yes. He needed a shower. You made it possible for him to have one. Done. Likewise, no one comes and asks someone else’s grandmother to pick out second-hand shoes and clothes for them unless they really, truly, need some shoes and clothes.
It is refreshing. After you’ve waded through enough sophisticated blather over the years from non-homeless people, it’s nice to be around people who have no particular social skills. They just want a shower and some shoes, done. We don’t ask you to listen to a talk about Higher Things or make a promise that you’ll never drink and you’ll always work really hard. We just tell you when the shower’s ready.
It is edifying. Here are friends joking together, family members proud of each other, worried about each other, looking after each other, telling stories about each other — all this beautiful humanity in front of your face. Everyone has a story of home, even when home is outside.
All these things I love. But there’s something that keeps moving me most, week after week: The generosity of total strangers.
This week we had to stop off at St. Urban’s on the way to S&L. “Oh, by the way, tell them down there we’ve got a pile of stuff the Sodality of Mary collected.” #3 & I took a look at the pile, determined it would fit in our freshly-emptied front seat, and brought it ourselves.
This whole stack of things was exactly what S&L needed. Late in the afternoon, after the waiting area had emptied, we sorted through the stuff to put away. You have toothbrushes or lotion or shampoo, and you go to put it away, and discover the amount on the counter is the right amount to fill the gap on the supply shelves. Here’s something we almost ran out of, but church ladies took up a collection and now we have it, just when we need it.
Every week when we’re pouring detergent or spraying disinfectant or setting a few more miniature bars of soap in the bin by the towels, we’re holding someone else’s generosity. None of that stuff comes from grants or government-supply. It’s all collected a piece at a time by people all over the city who’ve gone through the trouble of gathering supplies together and getting them delivered.
Imagine having the job of opening and delivering 500 hundred Valentines a week. Then imagine that they weren’t love letters between boyfriend and girlfriend or parent and child, but rather each one said:
Dear Person Who Matters to Me,
I’ve never met you, I know your life sucks and people don’t want to be around you and some of it might even be your own fault, but I’m glad you’re here in my town with me. I care about you, and I want to make your life a little bit better, and I want you to know you are not alone.
Your Secret Friend.
If you got to catalog and count and deliver box after box of that sort of love?
You would like that job.