This summer, I did something different. Desperate for a job, I applied to work everywhere, and I ended up at our church’s homeless shelter. I knew next to nothing about how to deal with people older than me, not to mention people who had such a different background than I did, and I’d never really considered learning about such things. However, I was hired as a supervisor of the women and children’s shelter on the spot, and I was thrown right in. No amount of training would have been able to prepare me for everything we had to deal with, so my first few days, actually weeks, there were pretty hectic.
I hated working there. And I loved it. Every day I drove to work, I dreaded finding out what huge conflict I’d have to face, and every night I left feeling exhausted and drained. But there were many things I absolutely loved about it; I grew to love the women there and felt that they were, in a way, my children (even though almost all of them were a lot older than I was), and I was sad to leave all the friends I’d made behind.
Throughout my time there, I grew a lot. I saw a lot. And I learned so much, I can’t even start telling you everything. But here are some of the biggest lessons I narrowed down from my time among the homeless.
1. The world is a messed-up place.
This we all know, but seeing it firsthand changes things. We live in a world where children are born into abusive households without parents to raise them and teach them right and wrong. Children grow up seeing their parents come home drunk or with another partner every night, dreading the moment their parents step through that door, because they know they will no longer be safe. Some kids just decide to leave home, looking for a safer place to live, having to provide for themselves and their younger siblings before they even become teenagers. A world where even just one of these facts is true is a tragic place to live.
We need to open our eyes. While we may have never experienced this kind of a life, we must be aware of it. Judging a person on the streets without knowing his story is being so blind on our part. When I worked at the mission, there was a woman there suffering from Alzheimer’s. Her children had all passed away, and her brother only came to check up on her every couple of months. There was no way she could provide for herself. She was alone in this world with nowhere to turn. And she’s not the only one; there are so many people like this. Many of these people we drive past without a second thought are helpless, coming from a background of suffering, neglect, and abuse, and they need help, not judgment.
2. We’re all broken people.
As I said, there is so much suffering among homeless people. That’s not to say that none of what happened to them is their fault, but most of them also had to live through terrible circumstances. They are broken and need God.
The more I was with my homeless friends, the more I realized I was broken too. I have deep-seated issues that I’ve tried to deal with and can’t seem to get rid of, just as any of those women with their addictions. It was a reminder of our great need for God’s grace to bring us out of our broken ways. Even though many of the homeless people may have worse addictions and bigger problems, we are in no way better than they are. We all have our own baggage to deal with.
3. We’re all one step away from being homeless.
I often wonder where I’d be in life if I didn’t have such a loving family. What if they hadn’t raised me in a Christian home? What if my dad had been in jail? Or my mom was addicted to drugs? It’s so easy to judge those people around me now who struggle with addictions, but can I really say that I wouldn’t have the same problems if I had grown up that way?
Some of the stories I heard there were crazy. They all began with “I just decided to try this once, and then I ended up here.” Sin is such a slippery slope, and who can say if they are really strong enough to stay above it?
4. Everyone need love and acceptance.
So there was this one woman. I could not stand her. Every time she was around, a fight broke out. She had four kids, and there was always some problem with them too. Every 10 minutes, I’d be called out to talk to her about something again. I’d tried to talk to my boss about her, hoping she’d be asked to leave, but nothing was ever done. One particularly bad night, I had to go talk to her for about the 5th time, and I was not in a good mood.
As I walked into the room that she and her four children huddled in, she glared at me, her eyes flashing.
“What?” she demanded. “What did they tell you about me now?”
As I opened my mouth to speak, looking as severe as I could, she cut me off. “Why can’t you just say one loving thing to me?”
That stopped me.
“Ever since I’ve been here, all I’ve heard was criticism. Everyone hates me. I’m just trying to protect my kids, but everyone’s against me. I thought this was a Christian facility. Why can’t you love me?”
Ouch. I hadn’t been expecting that. She looked like the last person who wanted anyone to show her affection. At that moment, I realized how wrong my attitude was toward her, toward my job, the whole time. I’d view certain women as “problem people” and a few others as “allies who would back me up.” I went into this job expecting everyone to be against me. I never stopped to look at them in love. It was always just a job to somehow survive. Her words made me think how true it is that everyone needs love, no matter how much they hide it or how unlovable they seem. It broke my heart and convicted me. She wanted people’s acceptance as much as I did.
We’re not that different. Everyone has the same driving needs, even if someone handles them differently than we do.
5. God loves us all passionately.
There are so many cool stories I could share with you of transformed lives. I loved listening to ladies talk about their experiences that led to salvation. They all said the same thing: they tried everything in the world, and it was empty, but then they found Jesus, who had the answer and turned their lives around.
If you saw these people, you’d be inclined to question God; why would he let such horrible things happen to them? But if you take a closer look, you’d see God working in their lives, drawing them to him. They did go through tragic disasters, but many of them would not have come to know him if he hadn’t gotten their attention. You can also see God’s providence, saving some of them through drug abuse or terrible relationships. He doesn’t hate these people; in fact, he loves them more than we can imagine. I give thanks to him that I didn’t have to go through such situations, but I am also grateful I could see the emptiness of the world from other’s eyes and not have to go through it myself.
6. God gave us what we have for a reason.
Never in a million years would I have guessed that I’d be working at a homeless shelter (and love doing it). But surprisingly, God gave me the ability and the opportunity. And for good reason. I learned so much by talking to my “mission friends” about the world, dangers of sin, social work, and how judgmental we can be towards others in our warm houses and cars. And I learned so much about handling conflict and confrontation. And love. And God’s grace. And so much more.
You may not have the opportunity to be a supervisor at a women’s shelter, but you have other opportunities God has given you. Money that you can use to support such missions. Time that you can volunteer. Experiences, even bad, that you can use to share the gospel with someone as broken as you were. Don’t waste what God has given you. Use it for him. Reach out to those in need. Love the unlovable. After all, that’s what Jesus did when he came down to us.