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|By NORA GALLAGHER
I am sitting here with about 100 other people in a small room at City Hall on hard black benches with high sides. They remind me of pews. In front of us, the city planning commission is listening to testimony regarding a homeless shelter, the first permanent day center and winter shelter for 200 "beds" in the city of Santa Barbara.
A coalition of business leaders, city and county elected officials, representatives from the homeless community, service providers and religious leaders, including the rector of my church, Mark Asman, have worked together for two years to find a building and get through the necessary permits, community meetings and so forth to make this shelter happen, a shelter in which there will be showers, lockers, washers and driers, mail service, telephones, three hot meals, a children's play yard, a detox facility and, not to forget, those beds.
The things I literally prayed for when I worked in a soup kitchen and had to say no so much of the time. No, I'm sorry, we don't have showers. No, you can't stay here after 1:30 in the afternoon. No, we don't have lockers for your belongings. No we can't watch your child. No, we don't serve dinner. And No, you can't sleep here.
I am waiting to speak. There are 70 of us signed up. The commission has received more than 50 letters so far, about half for and about half against. In the room with me, it is hard to tell who is for and who is against. I am sitting behind a woman and her husband who are well dressed and pleasant. It turns out they are against. Much of the testimony is against. It's beginning to drum in my ears: the words "drunk," "addict," "violent" and "those people."
The people who are speaking are perfectly decent people. Not many of them actually live in the neighborhood, but some of them own businesses nearby or live some blocks away. They are worried about what homeless people will do to the neighborhood. They talk about how many of "those people" have chosen this "lifestyle." They are, I know, afraid. I too, was afraid when we started our Kitchen. As I listen, I think about when I worked in the Kitchen, and who I knew there.
For the first five months of the Kitchen's life, we handed the soup through a little window cut into the back door of the parish hall. The men stood in line outside. Then, the winter came, and the rains. Volunteers from the Presbyterian Church were the first to protest. Why can't they come inside? they said. It's cold, it's wet. We feel uncomfortable. We're dry and warm and they are miserable and cold.
Finally, we let them in once, for a sit-down meal. Everyone behaved, no fights broke out. In fact, they were too well-behaved. Almost no one spoke. Tables of silent men filled the hall. They ate and left. After that, it seemed silly not to just let them in. For months, they sat at the tables and ate and we stood behind the serving table or bustled between them, carrying trays. We ate before we arrived or standing up in the kitchen. Then one day, I noticed that at a table with four men in various states of homelessness was a well-dressed woman, eating the same food. She was, I realized, a volunteer from the Latter-day Saints. The next week, I tried it. I sat down, awkwardly, at a table with six men. A few of them nodded. Others stared ahead. The World Series was on and the previous night had been a particularly exciting game: the longest in Series history.
I was happy to have a conversation opener I was sure we all shared.
"See the game last night?" I said, expectantly.
Several pairs of eyes turned toward me. No one spoke. Finally, a huge man with an Abe Lincoln beard, who I later came to know as Alan, asked, "What game?"
"The World Series," I replied.
"Oh, is that on now?" he said.
"Yeah," I said, less confident now. "It was a great game."
"I don't actually watch TV," said one of the men. "I prefer reading."
"Yeah," Alan agreed. "Or I watch PBS. There's a good series on German Expressionism on right now."
I am not kidding. This is precisely what he said.
One day, I arrived to work in the soup kitchen hungry, dirty and dressed in old sweats. I joined the line of men without checking in with the Kitchen manager and as I received my soup, I looked straight into the volunteer's eyes. Her eyes shone with pity. I began to explain, then thought better of it. I sat down at a table with Greg, who likes jokes, and Alan. Greg said, "What did Robin Hood say to Maid Marion when she asked him if he wanted to live with her in the forest?"
"I don't know," I replied.
"Sure would," he said, and I laughed.
I think about that first time, as I sit here today, and how I got to know Greg and Alan. Alan, who served in the Vietnam War and swept the floors every day after we had finished serving without being asked or being paid, and Greg, who had mental illness and volunteered to wash dishes almost every day, and how now that I don't work in the soup kitchen anymore they have vanished from my life.
We are all hungry, and we hide our hunger well. We thirst. We armor ourselves against our hunger and our thirst, afraid to feel them. One of the men who wrote a letter supporting the shelter talked about the places on a knight's armor, the spaces between the armor's flexible plates, called interstices. The interstices were the places where knights were vulnerable.
He said that he believed that the homeless and the marginal of every kind live in the interstices of our lives, in the places where we can be penetrated. That in those places, our own hunger is revealed, because of theirs; our own thirst is exposed, because of theirs. The odd thing is that this revelation and exposure brings not fear, but relief from fear.
It is Christmas. We are asked to welcome this homeless child into our hearts. He lives in the interstices of our lives. In his vulnerability, he brings us good news. As the great anthem says, "In our bodies, we shall see God. We ourselves shall see, and our eyes behold God, who is our friend and not a stranger." |
Nora Gallagher of Santa Barbara, Calif., is author of "Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith," published by Knopf. It is currently on the Los Angeles Times best-seller list.
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