I chose the task of overseeing the hot drink station and offered milk and sugar to the homeless men as they made themselves tea or coffee. There was a counter between us. I was on the kitchen side serving, and the men were on the other side receiving. It felt like a safe barrier between me and them.
It was my first time volunteering at the Men's Winter Shelter held at our church. One night a month around 50 homeless men arrive from San Rafael by bus and receive a meal and spend the night in the church recreation hall.
One man held an empty cup in his hand and told me he had a cold. I suggested he have tea instead of coffee. He was an older man with sparkle in his eyes. I asked if he wanted honey with his tea, and he said yes.
"Sweetness helps everything," I said.
I opened kitchen cupboards, found a bottle of honey, squeezed some into his cup and stirred it with a plastic spoon.
He took a sip and smiled. "It reminds me of my mom," he said. "Thank you."
After all the men had gone through the buffet line, our assignment as volunteers was to serve ourselves and then sit and eat with the men. I was hesitant about this part of my job. I organized the tea and coffee station, wiped the counter, threw away empty sugar packs, and restocked the paper cup that held plastic spoons. I was afraid of the level of connection that eating a meal with someone might offer. The truth is, I liked having a counter between us.
When there was nothing left to tidy in the kitchen, I took a paper plate and went through the line. But I quickly found an excuse to return to the kitchen and searched the drawers for serving utensils. Many of the men had told me they were sick as I added honey to their tea. Although volunteers were stationed at the buffet line, I had seen homeless men serving themselves with the spatulas and tongs. I didn't want to catch what they had, and I wondered if I could catch homelessness. I knew I didn't want that, but then it occurred to me that perhaps I was homeless on some level, searching for the cup of tea with honey in it that would warm me from the inside out.
This is how I arrived at the dinner table--with my fruit salad, my mashed potatoes and my fear. What would I talk about? Our volunteer leader had asked us to make casual conversation. She said some men would talk and some would not, but to try to make a connection so the men might feel that they were welcome in our space. I chose to sit at a table with one of the head volunteers, Joan, and the older man who had said he wanted honey with his tea.
There were four men sitting near me at the table. They were eating and quiet. When I'm nervous, I talk to fill space. I started talking about tea and how I make tea for my children when they're sick, when I want a break from work and in the afternoon when I'm tired. And then Joan leaned in and said, "Kathleen sang a solo in church this morning. What song was it?"
Often when I'm asked to recall the name of a song, a person or a place, I freeze. My mind goes blank, and I can't find the answer. I know this about myself and have learned to talk around the word, and someone else eventually names what I can't remember.
"I can't think of the name," I said, "It was a song about a river and everyone goes there together to pray."
The tea-drinking man looked up. His eyes sparkled and he hummed, "As I went down to the river to pray..." I recognized the tune and started to sing the words with him. The man to his left had a silvery white beard, bushy eyebrows and blue eyes. He started humming and nodding his head. The man on my right tilted his head to listen. Joan joined in too, and I could hear her singing. The man beside me, who had been distant when I was talking about tea, sat upright and stared at me. I avoided his eyes. A few more men gathered around the table and started humming. Some began to sing a few words here and there. I could hear their voices coming in low and slow, like a distant memory returning.
I looked again at the man beside me, the one who was staring into me. This time, I held his gaze and kept singing. Tears formed in his eyes. Part of me wanted to look away, to not have to see his suffering, but he seemed to be someone who was used to people turning away. I decided I would keep singing and offer him something different. I would witness his tears and hold space for them. As I did, he smiled, a faint smile, one that said he knew he'd been seen. I smiled grateful and touched that he was willing to share his humanity with me.
When the song ended, the tea-drinking man called out, "Do you know the one Dem Bones?"
I started singing, "Dem bones gonna rise again."
"Yes, that one!" He said. "I sang that at church camp, Baptist church camp, when I was a boy." He sang with me and we laughed.
Others called out lines to songs. We sang bits from each one as we remembered them, helping each other with words and tunes. I sang, "If you get to heaven before I do, comin' for to carrying me home, tell all them folks I'm comin' after you, comin' for to carry me home." And then we all sang the chorus together from Swing Low Sweet Chariot.
A few men walked away to get their bedding rolls ready to sleep. The volunteer coordinator had told us that the men were tired and most would go to sleep early. A few circled in close and then drifted away. It was as if they were coming to warm themselves by a fire before they slept. The singing began to dwindle, like a lullaby softening as a child drifts towards sleep. There were three men left, and then there was only one--the man on my left, the one who had had tears in his eyes.
He stayed until I stopped singing, and then he began talking, whispering. He told me he had hard, hard things happen in his life, things he could never tell me, and that he'd done things he wasn't proud of. He said he'd purchased a Bible and wanted to return to God, but that he had a few things he had to do first before he was good enough to go back to God.
He asked me to wait a minute, and he went to his pack and returned with his new Bible. He opened it carefully and asked me to read John 14. I didn't have my glasses so I couldn't see the text. Instead, he began quoting passages by memory, and I realized he was sharing his lullaby, the words he recited to himself. "Do not let your hearts be troubled..." he continued in a soft, steady voice. "I am the way, and the truth, and the light." He kept talking, "Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and in fact, will do greater works than these because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it."
He told me he had to be a better person before he could return to God, and that he was working on being a better person, and then I told him gently, and carefully, that I heard what he was saying, but that I didn't agree with him. I told him I believed he could be as he is and receive the love of God that is already here for him.
I've had this conversation with myself recently as I've worked to understand deeply what it means to forgive--myself and others. The only response I have been able to find that feels true to God's goodness is that I get to come as I am. It is a humble walk to show up with all my wounds, the ones others have inflicted on me, and the ones I've inflicted on myself and offer then up. It is in the offering that I believe we begin to heal and we experience grace. We don't have to do anything or be anything to be completely worthy of God's unconditional love. That's the unconditional part of it. It's why humans are human and God is God.
"You're already more than enough for God," I said with complete certainty as I had seen his beauty in his tears. After I spoke these words, I realized I had said to him what I needed most to hear myself: You are already more than enough for God.
He asked me if I would pray for him, and I said I would. Little did he know that in his asking and sharing, he had saved me.
As I drove home, I wiped away my own tears and felt how deeply a meal and a night of song had filled my own cup with faith, sweetness and love.
Kathleen blogs regularly to The Huffington Post. To be notified when she publishes a blog, please sign up here. Kathleen is the author of two books that celebrate life and motherhood:Mother Advice To Take With You To College, a collection of humorous drawings and wise sayings, and The Tiffany Box: A Memoir, an International Best Book Awards Finalist, a true story full of humor, heartache and love--told through emails, letters, diary entries and columns about the last two years of Kathleen's mother's life. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.