By Karen Verderber
Six years ago, St. Luke Orthodox Church welcomed the PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter) program to the Church site on Monday evening from October to April. Many of our parishioners signed up for the food team which provided dinner, breakfast and bag lunches for the women and children who were sheltered that night. After two years of volunteering on this team, I felt that maybe I was ready to work the night shift; 10:45 pm to 3:00 am or 3:00 am to 7:00 am. Life’s greatest adventures, I feel, are about people and not places or things. Needless to say, the night shift provided me with a broad terrain of personalities and eccentricities. As a I share a few of my experiences, I will be sure to protect the privacy of three of our guests by assigning each with a new name.
Let me first introduce you to Hope, a strong resolute African American woman who found herself as a shelter guest due to a fire that destroyed her home. Rather than seeking shelter with her dysfunctional family and abusive father, Hope opted for PADS temporarily. She arose very early before the other women, to get ready for her job. As I sat with her in the back of the upstairs room, the Sacristy, she said she’d like some company while she meticulously groomed her hair and make-up. Hope said that no one knew she was sleeping at a shelter while she was waiting for her homeowner’s insurance money to come thru. She was proud and confident and a true survivor. She will never know how much she strengthened and encouraged me as I was going through my own dark valley. Hope was a woman who had been through a lot and had come out of it with “faith, strength and trust in Jesus”, in her own words. She was just with us for a season and when she didn’t return in the fall, I found that I missed her and our midnight confessions.
And then there was Lena, an elderly lady brought to the shelter by her son who said he couldn’t handle her. My first encounter with Lena began at 1:00 am one morning when Lena asked me and the other volunteer to adjust her back brace. We soon found out that Lena had contrived this brace by affixing a series of belts together which she claimed aligned her spine and back problem. We spent the next hour trying to navigate through the mess of straps and belts to make Lena more comfortable. Had we been videotaped, I’m sure we would have won for funniest home video! To this day, I still don’t know how we helped Lena with the belt brace issues, but she was strutting around like a peacock in her self-designed contraption when I left the shelter that morning. I never saw Lena again!
My final story involves Dinah, a tall, elegant well-dressed woman brought in by the police before midnight as a result of a domestic dispute and looking for a one night shelter. Dinah was high maintenance right from the start. She had many specific requests. Here goes…First Dinah sorted through our bedding supplies to make sure that her pillow cases and sheets matched and that they were in a “pretty” color. Then we searched for just the right place to sleep; where the floor was clean and far away from the other guests. Then I was asked if I could slightly microwave the juice I had just poured to take the chill off of it. No problem. I then provided Dinah with a sandwich. Could I warm it in the microwave? Of course. Now on to a sweet roll. Could I warm it also? Certainly. And this is all taking place while the other guests are having their own requests. Now onto wash cloths and towels. Back to the bins with Dinah to check out the best ones. I flet like I was shopping at Target with Dinah! But after she finally settled in, Dinah looked me straight in the eye and said, “It’s so nice to see that there are still people that treat others as human beings”. My response was, “We’re all like that at St. Luke.” And I meant it!
Through my experience as a PADS volunteer, I have heard first hand that the plight of many of our guests had to do with choices. And I am very aware that none of us makes the right choice all the time. But it’s only through the causes of suffering and how God wants to use it that often has a deeper meaning than our humanness may be aware of. When we deal with people in pain, we have to guard against the easy answer and know it all attitude. As Kelly, a laid-off postal worker and PADS guest put it, “we all can be just one paycheck away from being homeless. I didn’t think it could happen to me until my monthly medication costs ate up my living expenses.”
So if you are interested in spending an evening with the St. Luke shelter guests, you may have the eye-opening and enriching opportunity to listen to some midnight confessions. “Listening is the art of creating a space so that God can do His work in the life of another.” I continue to pray that God will wash these women “white as snow and rescue them from their brokenness.”
To all the Hopes, Lenas and Dinahs out there….thank you. It’s been my privilege to serve you and to share your stories.