On Shelters & the Uncomfortable.
When you're eight years old, sleepover parties are the biggest deal. You pack your backpack, grab a sleeping bag & pillow, & sleep with your heads all facing each other, competing to see who can stay up the latest and fighting over who really snores, and who’s just faking. Parents come in, quietly saying, “Girls, it’s time to go to bed now!” all throughout the night, when the giggles get too out of control. Even as you grow up, sleepovers are a time to watch The Notebook & cry. You talk about boys and relationships and maybe things we’re scared of in high school. You play games of truth or dare, and truth always seems to get picked when you’re curled in the circle, slowly coming down from your sugar rush.
But here’s the thing: sleepovers aren’t always giggles & truth or dare games. Sometimes, they’re just hard.
It would be generous to call last night a sleepover, but it also feels generous to call it a night of homelessness, because we sat and drank coffee in our living room until 8:45 pm. Either way, instead of sleeping where I’m accustomed to sleeping, I slept somewhere a little different last night.
At about 9:15 pm, we are standing at the door of the women’s shelter, ready to be taken in for the night. We press the buzzer. We giggle at little jokes - maybe the jokes were funny, maybe we’re just trying to avoid uncomfortable questions and feelings awaiting us on the other side of the door.
The staff doesn't seem to know we’re coming, so we wait in “The Bubble”. This is our first wait of the experience, but definitely not the last. If God is going to teach me one thing during this internship, it’s patience. I think about that as we wait - no phone to distract me, no ID, no wallet - just my keys in my pocket.
We are finally let into the shelter. The lights are dimmed in the main area, and the windows are half covered with a mat to block the light coming in from outside. The office gives off a brighter glow and we head inside there to resister, as though we are first time clients. We go through the questions: my name, my date of birth, my emergency contact, the privacy act. We take our shelter photo all together, squeezed in for a webcam photo.
Then comes a quick patdown. My blue rain jacket and my keys go into a transparent blue garbage bag, tied up, labelled with my name on a piece of tape, and put on a shelf in a cafe, where I won’t be able to access it without a staff member. I’m offered a sandwich, water, shower supplies - all of which I say no to. I grab a blanket - it’s brown, checked with black and white. It reminds me of a pattern of cushions in my Opa and Oma’s trailer. I move onto a blue mat, much like a gym mat, that separates me from the floor just a tad. We have no pillows, so we were told to wear layers and use our sweaters as pillows. I take off my sweatshirt and sweatpants, roll them into a ball, and sit with my back against a wall, my eyes adjusting to the dim light.
It’s warm. The only breeze comes when someone new enters the shelter, and then the cold air - stale with the smell of smoke - wafts in. In the night, somehow, it cools down to be more comfortable.
At first, I looked all around me, trying to write background stories for everyone there, trying to figure them all out. Then I realized that was not at all helpful, so I attempted to fall asleep, figuring maybe I could get a night of deep rest in. After resting for what seemed like three hours, I woke up to find out it was 10:30 pm. The rest of the night was punctuated with a variety of smells to go with a symphony of sounds: there’s banging on the door, there’s shushing from the women as they tell others who are whispering to quiet down, there’s the sound of someone’s blanket shifting on their gym mat, and there’s snoring and coughing throughout the night.
It was not a comfortable evening.
Tonight, we studied Jonah 1, the beginning of the story of a man who literally tried to run away from God. Who slept through a storm, a storm that was devastating the sailors, a storm intended to get Jonah’s attention. We got asked one question that I keep rolling over in my head:
In what ways are we sleeping through the destruction we’re causing to our neighbours?
We answered that we think what might be an even more devastating form of destruction is inaction - sleeping through life, wearing blinders, avoiding what is hard because it is uncomfortable - and doing nothing. We can claim it’s alright, we’re not sinning because we’re not doing anything at all! But Christ’s call for our lives in to love our neighbours. Love is not inaction - love itself is an action.
Last night has pulled out all kinds of uncomfortable feelings within me, and I think it’s because I experienced a reality I can no longer avoid. I’ve been wearing those blinders and have been avoiding what is hard because it is uncomfortable - I grew hard and calloused to a lot of the bad things that happened in the world. And all the bad issues in the world are easy enough to avoid if you look at your phone, tune out the asks, or ignore a panhandler. But they are very hard to ignore when you are listening to their snoring, sleeping on a gym mat next to them, waking up to 90’s worship music with them. I can’t empathize exactly with many of the women, and I didn’t make time to sit down and learn their stories. But I can’t ignore it any longer. I am called to love in an actionable sense.
I really don’t know what my next steps look like, and I have no idea what love in an actionable sense looks like. I think there’s a lot of prayer involved: prayers of thanks for what I have (I think I can count on one hand the number of times - in recent years - I’ve thanked God for the roof over my head, a bed to sleep on, a pillow under me, food spilling out of cupboards, etc.), prayers for those experiencing homelessness, and prayers for what action in this area of life looks like. Maybe it looks like continually serving, or maybe it looks like beginning to listen and engage in conversations. I’m not sure yet.
But I share this story with you so that you, too, can pray for those experiencing homelessness. For the roof you have over your head. For this part of my journey in Alberta. And also, I share with you so that you can also reflect on what you may be sleeping through or avoiding. What are you avoiding because it pulls out uncomfortable feelings within you? What makes you turn to your phone when you’re uncomfortable? And where is Christ calling you to practice your love by putting it in action?
I’m going to say this one more time, because I think it’s sort of important.
Christ’s call for our lives in to love our neighbours. Whether you’re loving them in the inner city, or in a rural community; in secret; over a cup of coffee or over a large food donation; through monetary donations or the gift of your time and service, you are called to love. The love you are called to is not a love of inaction, because inaction is easy, comfortable, and never changes anything. Inaction continually perpetuates a system already existing. You are called to love, and love itself is an action.