Five years ago I was the Director of an Emergency Winter Shelter. In a particularly frigid December I was asked to coordinate this effort after a local pastor opened the doors of his tiny storefront church to let in the freezing folks huddled on his doorstep. I was impressed by this simple act of kindness: people need shelter from the cold. . .open the doors. For me, it was evidence of faith defined as “the right thing to do.” My pastor friend said that, though he also said he was “trusting God” as a “follower of Jesus.” I can admire that. We worked side by side along with good-hearted people who were Jewish, Sufi, Pagan, Bahai, Unitarian, Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical and Nothing in Particular. Several non-profit agencies and the County got involved. In other words, the emphasis was on “doing the right thing” rather than “believing the right thing.” It was a great privilege (though exhausting) to be a part of the collaboration.
Most of the participating congregations (about 25 total), the Rabbis, Priests, Ministers and others didn’t know I was a Freethinker, a non-believer, and I think most wouldn’t have cared if they knew. Many knew that I had been an Interfaith Chaplain on the streets and in the jails for many years. They knew that I had been a Minister. They knew me as “Chris.” And, honestly, since the Winter Shelter wasn’t about me anyway, it made it easier to simply focus on the task at hand: bringing people together to get to know other people and see if everyone could help each other, somehow, someway. It was really wonderful to see that happen!
When we put aside our differences because we identify a need, for instance our neighbors needing shelter, we can lend a hand to others with a sense of ethical imperative–in a sense, it all becomes “secular”–very present and NOW. Each participant may feel they are acting because of some “higher” cause or because they feel “called,” yet the boots on the ground approach reminds everyone that helping is the point, being a good, compassionate human being is the grounding. Everyone becomes a shelter for each other.
We learned a great deal about sheltering. We learned even more about the real people labeled and judged “Homeless.” And we got some hints about our need for human community, our own need for sheltering, our own need for home.
‘How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” (Pope Francis, quoted by President Barack Obama)