There, but for Grace, Go I

There are life lessons and humbling experiences to be found at homeless facilities


Like many of you, I spend some time at homeless shelters, food banks, and feeding facilities. A lot of people do not do so, but they think about such places at this time of year. Kitchens that feed the needy and shelters that house them can go all year hurting for volunteers. Then, they are inundated with offers to serve on Thanksgiving or around Christmas.

I confess to my own biases about such places.

I am grateful for those that open their doors to all – men, women, children, pets. I appreciate those who put as much emphasis on human dignity as they do food and shelter. I like those that expect good conduct from their clients, who express a “we are all in this together” mantra. The good ones have a spirit of tolerance. But they also know how and when to ensure no one feels threatened by the conduct of others.

I have much less use for those that will not help someone different – openly gay or trans people, for example. I have very, very little use for any that require attendance at a religious service as the price for a hot meal. Don’t preach – just live your values. Your religion should do fine by example rather than by being foisted on a captive audience. If you want to make a service available, that’s fine. But any more than that is coercion, with food and warmth as weapons of coercion.

What Does One Find?

I expect my experience mirrors what many others encounter. As expected, I see a lot of mental illness and a lot of addiction. I see way too much PTSD and way too many veterans. I also see illness and physical injuries in evidence. I also see a mix of men and women, and some children – whole families, even. This more so than in years past, at least in my experience. I see a mix of age and race.

Most importantly, I see no small number of people who don’t fit any of the usual “troubled” categories. They are people who cannot believe this has happened to them. One or two bad breaks and here they are. Some of them used to be donors and volunteers in such places. Now they depend on these places themselves.

What Might One Learn?
  • Above all, learn “There but for the grace of the Universe go I.” You can learn a little empathy, at least some sympathy. It is a most humbling revelation.
  • Learn that normalcy and safety are thin threads. They can be broken more easily and more quickly than you ever imagined.
  • Learn that people using these facilities deserve dignity and respect. For the most part, they gratefully receive it and return it in full measure.
  • Learn that many of the people who run and staff these places are as close to angels as many of us will ever know. Not all – but most.
A Better Approach

You haven’t volunteered to support such a facility before? Thinking about doing so, perhaps? I suggest some ideas that can enrich your experience. In so doing, you can help both the facilities and their clients.

First, what if you are thinking about volunteering during the holiday season. Consider instead stopping by one of these facilities. Let them know you would like to help after the holiday rush and ask what you might be able to do. Take the opportunity to see the facility first-hand. Meet some people, both volunteers and clients.

Second, many will invite you to stay for a meal. Take them up on it and talk with the people there. Leaving a small donation would not hurt.

Third, follow up on your word – come back in the New Year. Give it a few rounds. If it works for you, congratulations. Your humanity will grow a bit.

Fourth, such programs run on the mixed fuel of time, talent, and treasure. Give all three. Writing a check does not excuse you from rolling up your sleeves. Coming to work the food line does not replace the money you could share, modest though the amount may be, that is so needed. Do it all. You will not regret it.

Closing Thoughts

I have mentioned before that I have the greatest admiration for those who run such facilities. And I hate that we still need so many of them. We can do better and should.

But in the meantime, pitch in. Share a bit of your hard-earned money and roll up your sleeves. This is the classic win-win-win. Engage in this way and you will help good organizations get needed support. People in need get help. You get rewarded beyond your imaginings.

Sounds like pretty good gifts to me. Happy Holidays, everyone.

            Bill Clontz

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3 replies to There, but for Grace, Go I

  1. Right on, good sir. Seasonal kindness is fine; year long kindness becomes a graceful way of life. Compassion trumps pity every time.

    • “… a graceful way of life.”

      What a fine phrase. I plan to borrow that one!

  2. Yes, stay and share a meal. Years ago after we served our church’s donated meal, my young family got out of behind the counter, sat in dining area and ate with the clients. These days after food is served our containers are packed up, and church mates eat somewhere else. Seems kind of an odd thing to do, in and out without much interaction.

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