This past Wednesday I took some of our confirmation kids and family members down to Sunshine Ministries – a homeless men’s shelter. We go down there one time a year for one of our service events. It’s a good eye opener for the kids. they get a tour of what is a VERY clean facility and tightly run operation. They then serve the meal and clean up and we end the evening with a worship service that is mandatory for the residents. There are always a few things that surprise the kids – how nice the men are and polite, and that many of them look like their own uncle or father. We talked on the way home about the stereotype of a homeless person: ragged clothing, dirty, smelly, unkept. And they said they were surprised not to find that kind of person there, even coming in from a cold and rainy day in downtown St. Louis.
The shelter is a shelter is every use of the word. When you walk in the door and take a number, they give you a bag to put all your belongings into. But what hits you first, is the warm, dry air and cleanliness of the place that shelters you from the outdoors. And the man who greets you and checks you in treats you with dignity, telling you what you need to do and welcoming you into the shelter, sheltering you fromt he cruelties of the world. The routine there is to put your belongings in a secure space and then join the other men on the chairs awaiting further instructions. Those come right at 6pm followed by a table prayer and the men then move to the dinner tables. There were four new men on this night who were quickly brought into the family – being told the ins and outs and given a hot cooked meal to satisfy their empty bellies. Dinner was a bit chaotic, though. Only because we were there! We decided to service them seconds and there were so many requests that we had trouble keeping staright who’s tray was who’s! But it all worked out in the end and there was not one hamburger left of scoop of mashed potatoes. We cleaned up and some of us learned for the first time how to run a rag mop over the floor.. Some of the gentlemen got a kick out of that, watching our kids.
When all was cleaned up we began worship. We read the story of the lost sheep and acted out a modern day skit with the same theme. The kids got an ovation when we were done with the skit. I must say, they did a fine job! I reflected with the men then about the text and about how God loves each and everyone of us and never abandons us. I talked about being created in God’s image and how each of us is created in God’s image. We then sang Amazing Grace talking about God’s ultimate grace in our lives and that there’s nothing that we can do to separate us from the love of God (Ro. 8:37-39). During the prayers I prayed for them, and then I left time open for them to lift up their own prayer requests. And at first it was silent, then one prayed, then another, then another spoke up. They prayed for the courage to follow God’s will, they prayed for their families, for the world, for a job, for a better life, to know what to do. And they also thanked God for being with them. We concluded with the last three verses of Amazing Grace, and then I asked them to bless each other as they put their hand on the shoulder of the one next to them. There was some chuckling at that point. But afterward, one of them said to me, “Thanks for lettin us participate tonite.” He said that not often do they get to participate. That they just get talked to. And tonite he felt safe and honored to be able to pray twice: with the thoughts upon his heart spoken aloud and the song on his tongue! And he even got to bless his friend!
So yes, homeless. But not heartless. We need to remember that we are all made in God’s image and God loves all of us no matter where we are or what we have done or not done. So I say to my friend Michael, a resident at Sunshine Ministries, “Thank you for lettin me participate.” For what I see in large part depends on where I sit. And on this night, although I sat in a shelter, I was not sheltered from the realities of the world, nor God’s amazing grace in the midst of it.