For the past month I have been volunteering weekly at the local homeless shelter in my hometown of Ashland, Oregon. It wouldn't have been anything that my conscious personality would have chosen. In fact, I didn't even know that there was a homeless shelter in my town. It arose from the small voice of my depths which I hear from time to time and have grown to trust. When it arose, it was followed by immediate synchronistic events to which lead me to volunteer within a few days.
On my first visit, I felt a bit overwhelmed as the broken lives of thirty homeless people came in one after the other in aged old tattered clothing that not only you could see but smell. I felt an immediate resistance to push it away while something else inside of me, perhaps that small voice that called me here, wanted to break down the barriers of separation that this is 'you' and not 'me'.
Ironically, as that voice wanted to break down the barriers of separation, what was also was being called forth was to have strong boundaries. As one homeless man, who seemed to know the routine of this homeless shelter very well told me a story of another woman who came to volunteer. Whom on her first visit looked like a deer in the headlights. While she was sweet, it was a relief to him and everyone else when she began to exert her strength, to say 'no' and to have boundaries. "Because that is also what we need and respect", he said talking about her but really speaking about me. My boundaries were to also speak to my capacity of what I can and cannot do and to honor and know the limits to my own limitations. Boundaries and a clear, awake, grounded, soft and strong presence is needed in entering into these places our personal and collective shadow (repressed and dark cast away places) and all that it evokes physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
One evening, I came and saw a man whom I had never seen here before huddled up with his stuff in a corner. I was drawn to speak with him. I got down on the ground with him and said Hi to him. He looked at me and said, "There is a lot of white people here."
"I know" I replied. He was an African American man. We got to talking and he said, "I am scared of most people. It helps when I can suck my thumb. They tell me I am paranoid schizophrenic and I am on meds for this. I think I am this way because I was raped as a child." Tears began to well up and I said, "I am so sorry." If my tears hadn't found their emergence to my eyes, then they would when he gasped as if astonished that someone cared. He replied,"Really?"
"So very sorry," I replied as a tear streamed down my face. He shared a little more of the hardships of his life with me. I told him that he was strong. It was far beyond anything that I have had to face in my life. Yet, somehow I know that sitting with him is a healing for me as well. As if places within me that have been banished, outcasted, rejected and also feel alone, hear my apologies as well.
Soon bedtime came as 10pm is the lights out. The shelter always needs two volunteers to make it happen. This offers a buddy system of support. I crawled on my mat which laid on the floor and a deep but silent grief cry arose within me as I listened to Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli, The Prayer. "I pray you will be our eyes and watch us where we go. And help us to be wise in times when we don't know. Let this be your prayer when shadows fill our day: Lead us to a place. Guide us with your grace. To a place where we will be safe."
My tears weren't only ones of sorrow. They were infused with a strength. They came with gratitude as well, as if touching this low was offering a deeper perspective for my life. I have a roof over my head and warm running water. I have amazing friends and family. I have kind and caring parents who raised me the best they could in this broken world. Somehow opening to this brokenness, I do believe that our hearts are meant to break open again and again and again. Or as Mother Teresa once said "May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in."
So, tonight, I will return with a few friends to prepare a meal for this homeless group. It is a white wintery Christmas here. I am grateful that there is a warm space for homeless to stay for the night. A friend and I had an inspiration for the homeless for Christmas called "Make a Wish." We purchased miniature stockings for the homeless for them to write on a small piece of paper a practical small gift that would be really useful for them. We would like to make their wish come true: to shine a light and let them know people care.