So often in the past years had I said that I wanted to volunteer for the homeless, but had never actually taken the steps to walk that talk..
Really, it was the fear that always stopped me. The fear of the unfamiliar. The fear of the uncomfortable. The fear of seeing face to face the real struggle and suffering people have to endure. The fear of not saying the right things to them. The fear of not being able to find anything to say at all.
The first night ever volunteering at the Franciscan Outreach shelter all of that fear of unfamiliarity, discomfort, and search of the perfect words simply gave way to effortless, polite greetings, to pleasant interactions, and most importantly….it gave way to observation.
Too often we too quickly try to interject our own ideas, comparisons and narratives into new situations; trying to find our own way through our own words to make sense of something. But our own perception can sometimes interrupt reality. It’s when we take a step back from trying to describe what we see, and we quiet our thoughts and allow ourselves to really just observe – that’s when deeper truths start revealing themselves and a fuller understanding can be had.
I saw the unkempt and tattered clothing. I saw the disheveled hair and broken eyeglasses. I saw the backpacks and garbage bags that carried sole possessions. I saw the chapped hands with unclean fingernails reach out for, most likely, their first meal of the day.
I observed genuine gratitude for that meal. I observed camaraderie within the group and respect for one another. I observed the few lost stares and hung heads – the subtle, quiet outer movements that reflected the all-consuming inner questioning of “How did I get here?” I observed faith and positivity and determination that things will get better soon. I observed kindness when one person after another offered me yet another thank you and a sincere wish of a good night.
The deepest and most connecting observation that was had was that not one of those people in the shelter that night was a “bad” person (We may not outwardly label a homeless person as “bad,” but our societal actions of avoidance and ignoring their pleas for a little help says more than any words could). I observed that they are these souls that, at some point throughout their lives, had been beaten down, wounded, broken, lost and unloved. They are sick. They are tired. They are alone. They are weak from carrying a lifetime’s worth of tragedies and burdens. They are doing whatever they have to do to survive. They are all of these things…but none of them are bad. They are human beings.
We’re all just human beings, and we’re all carrying around, in one way or another, our own backpacks and garbage bags of burdens.
Imagine if we stopped criticizing and questioning one another for the things we carry and instead we just help to strip off that weight and we assist one another to stand straighter; to stand taller; to stand stronger. Because we are not our tragedies. People are not their burdens. We are all just human beings.
“We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way” – St Francis of Assisi