"Hello," I pass a plate of chicken, noodles and coleslaw across the counter,
"How are you doing?"
"I'm blessed." A smile.
My husband Mark and I are serving supper at the Salvation Army shelter, which straddles two neighborhoods: richer, mostly white St. Petersburg on Tampa Bay, and poorer, mostly black St. Petersburg further inland. St. Pete, known as the sunshine city, attracts the wealthy who come to escape the northern winters, and the homeless find their way down here because it is always warm. Sent by our church to reach out and share Christ's message of hope, the shelter, a short walk from our home, seemed like a good place to start.
As the line moves along, anywhere between 60 and 130 faces pass before me, black and white, young and old, even babies. Among them there are people who have lost their sight, or their hearing; those who cannot walk come in wheelchairs. Some of the faces bear the self inflicted wounds of drug and alcohol abuse. There are many people who suffer from mental illness. Most of the people are missing teeth. In our country – one of the richest in the world – there is no dental care for the poor. I see a few well-dressed newly poor who are still reeling from the shock of finding themselves at the shelter. And there are children, fresh faced, bouncing back with a child's resilience, accompanied by weary mothers. Although many of the faces of the grown ups are etched with pain and sorrow, almost everyone expresses thanks for the meal, and there is quite a cheerful atmosphere.
The Salvation Army shelter is a safe place where people can stay for a limited amount of time. If you really want to try to get your life in order, the Salvation Army will do their best to help you find work and somewhere to live. Still, jobs are hard to come by, even if you don't have a criminal record, and rent is high. You can't stay at the shelter for ever. It's against the law to sleep out or to panhandle, but many quietly do it anyway, since some of the shelters provided by the city are places where few would want to go. The good news is that no one need go hungry in St Pete. There are enough places, nearly all run by churches, which provide free meals if you don't mind waiting in line with your number. At the Salvation Army shelter there is a certain camaraderie. The cook does his best to make the donated food into a tasty meal, and the young black man with the wire rimmed glasses might just sit down at the piano and improvise jazz for an hour, lifting everyone's spirits. He may not have a slot that fits him in the world out there, but he sure can play!
Walking the streets, talking to the people, we get to know them. One day we meet Jane sitting outside the supermarket. She is an older lady that we know, very well spoken, but with some kind of mental disability. She has all her belongings in four tyvek bags. Her time at one of the shelters has come to an end, but she has no idea where to go. We pass the time of day, and she admires my new backpack. It makes me think how much she needs one herself. I know they have backpacks at the shelter because they give one to each new child who comes in. I call up, could we have one? A hesitation – yes – pick it up outside the office. We walk back up the street to the shelter, and sure enough there it is, a beautiful, brand new orange backpack, a lifeline to a homeless person. A kind neighbor gives us a lift back to the supermarket, and Jane is still sitting there. I jump out and try to give her the backpack, but nothing I can say will persuade her to take it. If she has nothing else, she has her pride. The next day Mark goes out to return the backpack to the office, but he has only gone a few steps when he meets a man carrying a very dilapidated backpack. The man sees the new orange backpack and asks if he might have it. So Mark gives it to him. What else could he do? As soon as the man takes off his broken old backpack, another man appears, picks up the broken backpack from the ground, puts it on his back and walks away. When we confess what we did the woman at the shelter generously says she is glad.
After the mealtime rush dies down we sometimes sit with one or the other. Marita is usually sitting alone. She tells me that she suffers from bi polar, but had a job doing clerical work for 35 years before becoming homeless. Now she has been on and off the streets for 8 years. It's not easy for a single woman, growing older. "But" she says, "I believe in God's love and protection. When I have to sleep on the streets I put my trust in Him, and he has never let anyone harm me."
There is Brian, a man in his 40's, who still has nightmares about his abusive father. Brian is a born-again believer, who doesn't believe in the churches anymore. "If only there was a safe place where you could face the pain, and start to find healing. If only there were people who would stand by you as you go through it. Where is the body of believers?" he asks.
There is Richard, always neat and casually dressed. He looks as if he belongs at the yacht club, rather than the shelter, "I used to manage stores", he tells us, "but the business wasn't doing so well, and one day I was asked to take a cut in pay. I refused and they fired me. I couldn't find another job. Bit by bit the money ran out, I lost my home, my car, everything. I used to think all homeless people were lazy bums, but now I've changed my mind."
One day a respectable looking family with 2 daughters, aged 10 and 13, comes into the shelter. I wonder how they will cope amongst all the ex-prisoners, drug addicts and alcoholics. I learn that when their dad got chronically sick and could no longer work, they found themselves homeless. It's obvious to everyone that the shelter is not a suitable place for their 2 teenage daughters, but since they have no choice, they make the best of it. Their brave mother puts her trust in the Lord, and somehow this is respected, and they are able to laugh and joke around with the other residents, while maintaining their values. Nevertheless, it is a painful situation.
Forgiveness is a raw and real issue here. There are reasons why these people have to fend for themselves, and for the loneliness that they experience. How can I forgive the parents who abused me? The children who closed their homes to me, when I needed them most? The mortgage company that took away my house? The spouse who left me? How can I forgive myself for the people I've hurt? How can I know that God forgives me?
It is not hard to get to know the people at the shelter. They have nothing, so there is nothing much to protect. Most of them profess a belief in God, and many know their Bibles better than we do. They believe Christ's teaching that we have to forgive in order to be forgiven. But it's hard.
Pam shared how as a young child and teenager she suffered years of sexual abuse. For the next 18 years she was so depressed and full of anger that she depended on medication to ease the pain. Two years ago she found the strength to forgive. It was not easy but she said that as she forgave each person who had hurt her, she felt a weight lift from her. Since then she is a changed person, who no longer needs medication to face life each day. She quietly shares her story in the hope that it might help others.
We met Clare on our first day at the shelter. A single mother with a lively second grade daughter. She was horrified to find herself homeless. Struggling with anger towards her mother, who could have taken them in, she held on to the longing for a better life for her child. Two months after they first arrived, she called me over after supper, and shared; "During this time I've done some soul searching. I've had to take a long hard look at myself. Finally I've been able to call my mother, and tell her how sorry I am for the way I was. Now she has invited us to come and live in her home. We're leaving the shelter on Tuesday".
None of the stories I've shared has a tidy, happy-ever-after ending, but Pam's forgiveness and Clare's reconciliation with her mother are rays of hope. I'm grateful to the different people I met who shared their hearts, even though there wasn't anything I could do except listen, and offer a prayer. I'm left with the thought that when it comes to forgiveness, we're all in the same boat, and will have to struggle again and again to be free. In the end there is only one who can help and heal us, who was homeless himself when he walked this earth. His name is Jesus.