I am not particularly active when it comes to causes. I don’t routinely volunteer on behalf of my community. I give to my church, both in time and financial support, but that is about the extent of things. I admit this, because it must be clear that I am no expert in matters of society beyond the well-insulated bubble of my white, teetering middle class existence. I do, however, see myself as a servant-of-Christ-in-training. My heart is engaged. My mind is active. However, my will to act is still lagging, but, I’m working on it. With these caveats in place, allow me to reflect on an experience I recently had as a volunteer serving a meal to the homeless at the Knoxville Area Rescue Ministry in downtown Knoxville.
I arrived with the process in full swing, delayed by my own reticence and also by traffic congestion due to a breast cancer awareness run. Hundreds of smiling folks were easily giving their time on a Saturday, while I was sitting in my car deciding whether to be annoyed by the delay or, perhaps, relieved that it might just provide a suitable excuse for me to not fulfill my commitment to spend time with Knoxville’s homeless population. After finding my way into the courtyard filled with people standing patiently in a long snaking line as they made their way through the various food, drink, and condiment stations, I located the serving team and introduced myself to Deacon Scott, in charge of today’s event. I was offered the job of manning the chili station. Donning serving gloves, I immediately assumed my rôle, as a steady flow of people approached with hot dogs in hand.
As I stood there for the next two hours doling out chili and interacting with the long line of people securing their meal, I began to notice things. The first was that there are many types of people who find themselves in a state of true homelessness. Most are generally affable, if shy. Some are very quiet and subdued, offering a timid, “Thank you” after being served. Some are more verbose, even chatty with solid eye contact and a presence that extends beyond their physical frame. And, there are some who clearly exhibit some form of behavioral distress. I am not a doctor, so I cannot speak to the presence or likelihood of mental illness, but I can say that I was acutely aware of those individuals who seemed less friendly, bordering on antisocial; their body language and even their eyes spoke of agitation, discomfort, anxiety…and possibly a short fuse. Regardless of my personal observations, however, my job was not to judge, but to scoop and slather chili as directed by those in line. For this brief, two-hour block of time I was a servant of these masters of homelessness, no matter their disposition.
The second observation is that the people I met on this day were some of the most incredibly individual people I have ever encountered. One might be tempted to think of homelessness as synonymous with invisible or faceless, a societal class of “them.” On the contrary, and this astonished me, each and every person who came through the line was as unique as a fingerprint and as memorable as a true friend. This uniqueness is partly due to not having the luxury of fashion, of style, and of basic hygiene. I can spend an afternoon in Farragut, encountering hundreds of people of all ages, and I daresay I wouldn’t recognize the vast majority again an hour later if I ran into them on a different street corner from where I first encountered them. Such is the ubiquity of means, the society of those who have enough to fit in. But homelessness demands that one put on the clothes of survival, to tend to those needs that preserve one from real annihilation and not just from the feeling that one’s wardrobe just isn’t cutting it today.
Everyone I encountered in the hot dog line had a style unto his or her own. Everyone had a story etched into the face and hands that, while perhaps similar in its rawness, I am convinced would be absolutely unique in the telling. So strong was each person’s countenance, that I felt as if I were anonymous and faceless in their midst. My takeaway from this: The homeless are not simply “the homeless,” but rather a community of unique individuals, expressing their personalities in such a way as very few people of means have the freedom to express.
My final observation on this day was that the experience I signed up for (and secretly wished to avoid) had, in fact, offered me the very way out of my reticence, my discomfort, my insecurity and fear of participating in it. These unique individuals, these incredible children of God relying on me as their servant for the day, had in fact permitted me to catch a glimpse of their spirit, which is a truly courageous act for one who has so very little to call his own. And in this moment I felt as if who I was or what I had really meant nothing. What meant everything, however, was that I was given the grace to recognize God standing before me with outstretched hands holding hot dogs and asking for a dab of chili, and I pray that God’s presence might somehow have been shining forth from me as well.