Heather's day

Here's something Heather just wrote, a description of a day last week. I wrote about some of these incidents already (and this is pretty long), but I like Heather's perspective...

My alarm wakes me up at about 6:15; I hit the snooze once, and the second time it goes off I scramble out of bed and into my clothes in the dark; my roommate Katie (who's moving out tomorrow) is still asleep. I make it out the door just a little after 6:30, when Paul was supposed to meet me in the living room, but he's not there.

Paul sleeps in "the Big House," where the guests live. (These are the homeless folks staying with us; we call them guests as part of our ethos--that this is hospitality in the biblical sense rather than an efficient social service.) I sleep in the little Annex, where only volunteers live. They're on different streets connected by a shared, unfenced backyard and just to be safe we've decided Paul would come get me in the mornings instead of my walking alone.

I wait for Paul, and do the Annex dishes while I wait. He hasn't come and it's about seven, so I decide that just this once I might as well go ahead;. Turns out Paul was there at 6:30 but left again; he thought & hoped I'd slept through my alarm, thinks I needed it. We sit down on the couch in the office, where he sleeps, and have a shortened devotions together; I'm tired so I just listen to him chant a psalm & then read the Gospel reading out loud, then we chant the Magnificat together. Hoefully tomorrow there'll be time for more prayer. By this time the guests are stirring: I say good morning to Jeanine, off to her new temp job very early, and it's seven thirty, time to wake up Heather who's sleeping on the living room couch. I wake her up, ask her a few questions about how things are going; she's fairly new. She's a more middle-class type about my age, fallen on crazy problems involving a pot-smoking roommate who aggravates her asthma & can't be made to respect her needs; she just needs a temporary bed until she can get it worked out. She has a concern from yesterday; she was in the living room in the morning and one of the volunteers who come in to cook for soup kitchen was watching her like a hawk, making her uncomfortable. (She's not used to being a Homeless Person; any of the other guests would have known what that was about, though they'd have felt no less disrespected.) Sorry about that, I tell her, it's just that sometimes people are scared when they don't know who someone is; next time try introducing yourself and explaining your situation.

I go back into the kitchen to make my breakfast, say good morning to Tyette who's passing through, chat a little with Darcy as we get coffee: how did she sleep? Better than she had in days, with the cooler weather. But her husband Robert, who sleeps at the Salvation Army shelter and just got a roofing job, wasn't able to work yesterday because of the rain. Robert and Darcy came here from Indianapolis; they felt they needed to leave town because the relatives they were living with were getting involved with drugs. They are very determined to get on their feet.

I make oatmeal and sit down with Paul to eat it; the doorbell rings. It's a man wearing a look I know well; it's a look that says, "I just need this one thing. Please, please help me get it. If I can't get help I don't know what I'm going to do." We see that look around here plenty, and having worn it before myself, I tend to move into quick action mode at the sight of it. He needs a bus ticket to Danville; they've changed his court date, he just found out today, and if he can't get there they'll issue a warrant for his arrest. He doesn't know where else to go to get the money for the bus ticket; please. I call over to the Annex, since I'm not yet a signer on the Emergency Assistance account, and Florence informs me that a ticket to Danville only costs about $10 and yes, she thinks we can provide that. I run over and after a little confusion, we end up waking Andy (since Florence isn't a signer either) and getting him to sign a check. I leave my oatmeal in the fridge so that it's out of the way of the soup kitchen volunteers, as Paul and I walk with our new friend Charles down to the bus station; we talk about Jesus some--Charles tells us how he thinks ministers should come out and talk to the people where they're at instead of just telling them to come to church; sometimes they don't even have the transportation to get there. (As we well know.) Jesus, he says, went to where the people were, he walked around everywhere and didn't wait for them to come to him. We agree. Later we get on the topic of money. All these people, says Charles, gesturing around at the street, are just "chasing the dollar bill"; you talk to them about Jesus they won't listen, but you talk to them about money and they're all ears. He used to be like that, but he's trying to get straightened out. We get to the station and buy him a ticket with the check, and he thanks us; his bus leaves at four so he says he'd like to come back to the soup kitchen around noon when we're there (we eat at the soup kitchen too, and chat with the guests; over seventy of them, mostly men from other shelters, eat there daily) and maybe pray with us before he leaves. Yes, we'd like that.

We get home and I grab my oatmeal and take it over to the annex to eat it out of the bustle of soup kitchen preparation. A different team of volunteers comes in every day; on Fridays it's us live-in volunteers. Other days we might pitch in if they're short-handed, but otherwise we get out of their way. I sit down in the living room with the Jacques Ellul reading we've been handed out by Katie, who's organizing an all-volunteer discussion about it this afternoon. It's nice to sit down. I'm learning to use the hours that are normally work-hours for rest, writing, or personal errands--since most of my actual work seems to cluster around mealtimes and evenings. Another thing I'm learning is that I need to keep some reserve energy for the emotional work--communication, peacemaking, being able to summon the right reactions when a guest starts bad-mouthing another volunteer to me or when I hear that a guest has been stolen from.

I walk down to the bank before lunch to deposit a check. I've made a miscalculation & overdrawn my account. I walk home stressing; the fee is going to eat a large chunk of the monthly stipend I share with Paul, and if I'm going to lose money I'd rather give it to someone who needs it, not BankOne. I run into Robert and Darcy in front of the house and chat, and when they ask me where I've been I tell them the whole thing because it's weighing on my mind, and they're sympathetic. I walk away meditating on how it really does feel right, somehow, for us not to have that much more money than them. This is part of the ethos as well; this is voluntary poverty.

Paul and I hang around on the porch with the men waiting for their lunch; we check inside once or twice to see how long the line is, and to see if Charles is there. The line is really long, and he isn't. We chat with the people on the porch a little; how's the food today, etc. Finally we decide it's too crowded today and we don't want to take someone' spot, so we go back to the Annex and put together some leftovers, then come back for soup-kitchen closing time--we try to always be there since an unpleasant incident between a guest & a volunteer; we're there as a buffer, basically, because the guys know us better.

Paul tells me, as we walk back, that one of the regulars, Grace, an older Korean lady rumored not to be quite "all there," had her lost purse returned to her and counted its considerable financial contents in front of everybody. One of the guests told him people were watching that money like a hawk and maybe someone should walk her home. I agree heartily; there she goes, let's follow her. I run in and grab an umbrella (did I mention it's raining?) and we follow her down Springfield Avenue, "shadowing," feeling like a couple of spies. We're not sure how she would take it if we said, "Mind if we walk you home?" But we do catch up with her eventually, offer her room under the umbrella, and walk her within a few blocks of home.

We go home. I sit down in the Annex living room and finish the reading (almost) and then we have our discussion. It's an interesting discussion, stimulating; it's also a good point of entry to talk about faith with my co-workers, who are all Christians in one sense or another (and whatever the "sense," do take their faith in Christ seriously) but with whom I'm still feeling out to know how much common ground we have. (Incidentally, our current guests are all Christians & Paul and I may end up going to church with Robert and Darcy.) The reading is about "the sacred," a word Ellul uses in a social sense: what is this society organized around, what cannot be questioned? What is the idol that holds the tribe together? (He does include religions under this--as organizing principles for societies--but he sets Christianity apart, as something people have sometimes made into a "religion" but which isn't supposed to be, being true.) He sees technology (or "technique," the technical ability to manipulate matter in general) as one of the chief things our society (Western society) holds sacred. As a new idol, in fact. Interesting.

We get done with the discussion and it's 4:30, the time the Big House opens again. (We close it from 1:30 to 4:30 & everybody leaves.) Paul and I are "on the House" tonight: it's our job to cook supper, take care of whatever comes up, answer phone & door & requests, and close up at 9:30. Actually someone else is coming over to cook supper; how lucky we are.

Paul reads in the office; I sit in the living room with my mending, a donated down coat with a rip in it, and chat with the guests about their day. They're in a good mood today, much better than I expected; they tease each other and laugh. Darcy offers around a box of Runts and a box of Nerds she bought today; I say, "I like Nerds" and she cracks, "Yeah Heather, we noticed that already." We all laugh. Melvin, Tyette's husband, says that whoever gets that coat I'm mending better appreciate it. We start talking about what we're doing after supper and Tyette coughs into her hand "TV! TV!" We decided in the last house meeting that on weeknights we'd watch movies (borrowed from the local library) only if the idea had general consent.

Then Peter Woods, friend of the House, shows up to cook dinner just as we were discussing whether he really existed, declines any help, and twenty minutes later calls us all in for spaghetti. We eat, ask him about himself (all the volunteers that know him are somehow absent), then discuss the night's activities ("TV! TV!" Tyette coughs again) and settle on a movie called "The Glass House." I start the dishes with a guest, Vickie; she's a recent arrival and so shy (she's just come out of a hard situation) we haven't even had a chance to brief her about the house yet. She seems more expansive tonight so I start explaining a few things as we wash, then Florence comes over from the Annex and takes her into the office for a longer chat, along with her four kids for whom she provides toys that were stashed under the desk.

The dishes are taking too long. Paul and I are in the kitchen doing them and I'm supposed to be out there, it's pulling at me, I feel like a hostess who needs to entertain her guests, keep the atmosphere pleasant. Paul doesn't want me to leave him with all the dishes. Finally I just go to check on the guests and they're sitting in front of a dead TV; Melvin says, "Hey, are you guys coming or what? We're waitin' on you." "We're not done with the dishes yet." Shock. They had no idea we'd been stuck with them, they thought Vickie was helping; Melvin and Robert jump up and come back with me to the kitchen, and polish those pots off in no time flat. Paul is glad.

We start the movie, but immediately there's another problem: Sidney and Kris, Vickie's seven- and ten-year-olds, have settled down on a blanket on the living room floor, but The Glass House appears to be a fairly disturbing movie. I go to the office and ask Vickie whether she has preferences about what her kids watch. To my great relief, she says she's "kind of picky" about their movie viewing and comes out to call them away--and they come without protest. I breathe a thank-you prayer; I've really been worried about the kids & movie situation. Florence pulls out some games and sets them up on the dining-room table and shuts the door to the living-room: perfect. Looks like it's not movie night for me tonight. I spend the next hour playing with the kids, and in my mind laying plans to somewhere find a board game more appropriate for poor kids than Monopoly.

It's done; it's over; Kris helps me put away the game without even being asked (Glory! Hallelujah!) although the four-year-old has a hard time relinquishing the little silver Monopoly car he's been playing with for the past hour. I go back in and watch the end of the movie, in which good triumphs over evil and the young woman runs over the bad guy with a police car (hmm...) and we briefly discuss whether another movie is a good idea. I stress a little and emphasize that we need to be closed (which means husbands out) by 9:30, so we'd better start it now. They start it and I go back and forth from the TV to the clock in the office a few times, and finally calculate that it might be about quarter to ten when it's done; I stress, but the rules aren't inflexible, it's our call when we're on the house, and we decide to see how it goes. I never, as I've told the guests, watch two movies in a row, so I sit on the office couch with Paul, reading Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. After a long while things get really quiet. It's 9:30 by the clock; Paul says he thinks he'll just go close the door now at least. He returns with the news that the movie is off, and everyone's clearing out; Melvin's already sacked out on the porch, Robert's off home to the Salvation Army, and everyone's getting ready for bed.


We sit and hug for a minute and are glad together. It's been a long day, but a good day. Better than most, even a lot better; there's been a lot of conflict in the house lately, and an evening like this is a blessing from God. Paul walks me home, says goodnight at the door, and "Sleep well." "I will," I say with conviction.

But of course, Song of Solomon is so good that I sabotage my next morning by reading it until midnight.

Good night.