by Neal Lemery
I had a big dose of soul medicine and human kindness last week. The experience restored my faith in humanity and the power of unconditional love. I saw my community at its best.
A friend invited me to Homeless Connect, a community effort to provide basic needs to those among us who find themselves without shelter and other necessities.
The weather was bitter. Cold winds blew and temperatures were in the 20s at night. It wasn’t so rough that the local warming shelter would be open, but it was still promising to be a miserable night.
My task was to be the greeter and the poll taker as folks left.
“Did you get what you needed?” and “What could we do better?”
I met a steady stream of people, people of all ages and circumstances. I didn’t know their stories, and that kind of personal information was thankfully unwanted. We simply welcomed everyone who showed up and took care of basic needs. The red tape of bureaucracy was nowhere to be found. We did keep track of how many people came, as those without shelter are nearly invisible in our culture.
I saw a lot of smiles. Their pets were cared for, vaccinated, and fed. They had a hot meal and haircuts, were tended by health care providers, and connected with services by nearly every social service agency in town. They could pick up clean, warm clothes, blankets, sleeping bags, shoes, coats, tarps, and tents.
They made connections, not just with people and agencies who could offer a helping hand, but also with each other.
I saw connections made and strengthened with friends, family, an abundance of job prospects and housing tips. There was a spirit of fellowship and camaraderie filling the church gym where we had all gathered.
People were helping people, giving a helping hand, a ride, ideas and where to get help for a particular problem, connecting with others who cared. There was dignity and love.
It was an afternoon of suspended judgement and the absence of loudly voiced opinions and political rhetoric, blaming and stereotyping. Instead, it was a time of getting the right size of winter coat, a sleeping bag, a bag of food for someone’s dog, a haircut, a hot meal, and a tip on a decent, safe place to pitch a tent.
Everyone helped everyone else. No one left without something to help them take better care of themselves, make their lives a little easier, and a feeling that they were an important part of the community.
Community. That was the unpublished message of the day. People had generously donated the food, clothing, bedding, pet care, medical care, and an afternoon of services to reach out to and help their fellow community members.
There were great conversations, interactions on problem solving and connecting people to each other, sharing resources and knowledge, being human and acting with kindness and compassion. There was respect.
The sun moved lower and the cold wind off the mountains pushed deeper through my coat, reminding me that night was coming. The people I was talking with were slowly drifting away, off to spend this night sleeping on the ground, with maybe only a tarp, a tent, and a sleeping bag to ward off the frosty air, and the loneliness of yet another night without permanent shelter.
I struggled to relate, to comprehend their lives.
I knew that I had a warm home to return to when my volunteer shift came to an end. There would be family to greet me, a hot meal on the stove, a comfortable chair, a good book, a warm, clean bed, and a bathroom with hot water and clean towels. I would not have to move on when the sun came up, putting all of my possessions into a plastic garbage bag, and maybe a backpack, and wondering where my next meal was coming from.
Also at home would be my assumptions about life, about meeting a person’s basic needs and how people live in our community.
I assume a lot, yet I’m complacent, ignorant about how so many people in our community live, what they don’t have, and what they can expect in the days to come. I find myself too often acting blind to the dilemma of such need in a society where some are wealthy, and there is an abundance of necessities, yet out of reach of so many.
For that afternoon at least, there was compassion, service, charity, and a common fellowship of people helping each other, of making lives more comfortable, more bearable. Another cold winter’s night was coming, and dedicated community members had made a small effort to help ease people’s circumstances, maybe helping them step forward into better times.
I learned, again, that in our humanity, it is not difficult to act with kindness and compassion. If I suspend judgement and comparison, if I try to walk a mile in another’s shoes, then I can look at the world with greater understanding.
And, I can renew myself, and again be connected to the true purpose of our lives.
Neal C. Lemery – Community volunteer, mentor, and author – Homegrown Tomatoes: Essays and Musings From My Garden; Mentoring Boys to Men: Climbing Their Own Mountains; and Finding My Muse on Main Street are available at Amazon.com. More about my books at neallemery.com
“Be the change you want to see in the world.” -Mahatma Gandhi