I walk, pretending to be familiar with my surroundings. I have traveled the gamut of transportation to get here: automobile, train, bus, walking. The sidewalks and neighborhoods are unfamiliar, a reminder that I am far from home. Young people standing at the corner talking and laughing stop their actions for a moment as I walk past them pretending to have “missed” the conversation. Buildings and small houses around me appear locked together, no space between them, no architectural reason for the dissonance of height, frame, damage to the structure, chipped paint. Paint! It feels as if I am walking inside a large paint swatch, walking away from the bright, beautiful colors on the grid into a lackluster gradient space.
As I walk past dark but noisy alleys, the reality is I may be entirely lost. Then I see it! The building with a dark-blue door! There is dead silence around me, as if everyone has disappeared. There is an urge to run, to get off this transitional path. I run up two stairs at a time toward the dark-blue door. My hands touch the metal: it’s warm. Someone else has already arrived.
I stand at the “Paint Specialist” booth at the local Home Depot, where Randy (the “paint expert”) explains color variance between whisper white and crystal blue snow. They look the same to me. Randy pulls out a key ring with colorful cardboard-like book markers, fans them out. He demonstrates the “gradient” that occurs, from deep saturation to a faint whisper of color. “Simply commit,” he says. “If you don’t like the outcome, return the paint, and we’ll find a new color.”
In 48 hours I have walked the entire colorful gradient of human emotion.
Back at home unpacking paint supplies, I am grateful for the phone call that interrupts my task. Talking to my friend, Eve, all concerns of paint are forgotten. She has returned from a weekend volunteering at The Mission,1 a shelter for “transitioning” young people: runaways. “It’s a safe space,” says Eve. “Most have day jobs. They ran away from bad situations.” Eve, a police officer, serves as part of the security team. Young people go to The Mission for food, clothes, supplies, medical checkups, a place to get a warm shower, a place to sleep for a night. The Mission needs volunteers.
Two days later, returning from work, I fail to find my phone (apparently lost in my purse?) to answer a call. The message left is brief: “The Mission . . . paperwork approved . . . can you attend training and certification this week?”
I listen to the message twice. This is a big commitment! I gaze at the entrance to my home office, cans of paint stacked, as if waiting on some promise I made them. Looking at the cans of paint I find an emerging thought lingers: unlike the paint, this opportunity for ministry is not something I can “return.” There is no need to experience the outcome of thisministry to realize the need that shaped it. I have prayed about this opportunity. As my friend Randy said: “Just commit.” I pray in gratitude for the opportunity to serve others, for strength. Then, I call The Mission and commit.
“Hello! I’m Amy.” Through the dark-blue door, I am in a room full of picnic tables. Amy, director of The Mission, greets me with a kind smile that emulates the warmth left by her hands on the doorknob. She gives me a tour of the four-story warehouse. The first floor has a dining room with 24-hour food service. I hear volunteers talking and laughing as they prepare a warm meal. As we walk past a floor-to-ceiling spice cabinet, I smile, certain that “joy” is stacked among the spices.
The second floor has a small medical triage area, and two rooms equipped with individual “hygiene cubicles” (private bathrooms). Each room contains bins full of packaged toiletries, and plastic containers where old, dirty clothes may be placed for washing, mending, or maybe left behind, forgotten on purpose.
As we enter the third floor I notice our muted footsteps. Shelves line the wall; mismatched small round tables, chairs, and instruments are everywhere! The rug is frayed at the seams, the piano is scratched, books misarranged. Here young people gather, talk to counselors, chaplains, friends, play music, sing, read, or just sit by the windows and look at the stars.
I stand at the wall of windows, stare at the clouds; a storm is coming. Who will stand here tonight, grateful to be out of the rain?
In the back of the room is a door labeled “STORE.” Inside are clothes of all sizes, shoes, backpacks, blankets, and more. Donations are never a problem. Volunteers care for clothing items that need mending and washing. I pick up a backpack bag and inspect it. One strap has been sewn back on in expert fashion. I wonder where it has been. Guests are welcome to take what they need. I appreciate the used donations. I have seen many traumas at the hospital: a young adult was beaten, stabbed, and robbed (at minimum) for new clothes.
The fourth floor is the Resting Area. Cots are arranged with plenty of room to walk among them. During the night security teams ensure a safe rest. Every cot has a plastic pillow, pillowcase, clean sheets, blanket.
As we walk downstairs to meet other volunteers, Amy tells me that as a child the lyrics to a church song inspired this to be her life’s work: “I have no riches now, but I have a mansion in heaven.” She smiles. “This is the home God helps me build for them right now, while heaven comes.”
Young people (guests) arrive after dark and greet volunteers. Some get a tray of food, sit, eat quietly but fast, then get seconds. Others talk about mutual friends, trying to locate them. Volunteers sit with them, engage in conversations. I join a table, listen as heartbreaking conversations are shaped into casual dialogue. Guests share experiences, lessons learned, employment stories; they move the food around their plate in silence when the name of a friend who has gone missing is mentioned. They share. They are kind.
One guest brings juice for everyone at the table; another brings extra sandwiches and several bowls of soup. Some guests share that they haven’t had a meal in days, yet nobody is surprised. The bread they are breaking together is more than physical sustenance—it is a spiritual meal that feeds souls and mends hearts. They advise one another on where to find work and where to stay “clear from.” No one is greedy. This is a transitional place; everyone bears hopes and dreams! If I close my eyes, a different image emerges: guests gathering for fun, not necessity.
The security team begins to encourage guests to clean up, visit, and rest. I watch as most guests grab prepackaged snacks, crackers, cookies, fruit. They head out to different locations.
I walk through the aisles of the Resting Area, carrying extra blankets and pillows, grateful that I don’t have to say much. What could I say? What words would not sound heavy with pity? Then it happens: I am asked to speak.
“I know you can’t talk about religion here,” she says. “Would you pray with me? It’s been a while since someone prayed with me.”
“Ma’am?” I see a young girl sitting on her cot holding a pillow without a pillowcase. She holds it up to me and smiles. “Sorry to bother you. Do you have an extra pillowcase?”
I wonder why she would imagine a pillowcase to be a bother. I smile and hand her a new pillow with pillowcase. As I walk away she says: “I’m Lisa. Thanks.” As lights dim I use a small flashlight to follow the perimeter the security team walks, making sure everyone is tucked in.
As I walk past Lisa’s cot she asks if I am “new here.” I nod. She speaks in a whisper, telling me she comes here often. “It’s just a shame they can only take so few at once.” She reaches under the cot and grabs her backpack and a few extra toiletry bags fall out. She assures me the bags are for friends not here tonight. I slowly sit on the floor at the foot of her cot and ask if she would like more toiletry bags. She shakes her head no. I get a glance of a music notebook in her backpack. Respecting those around her, Lisa whispers her life story to me.
Lisa works washing dishes in a local restaurant, getting paid daily for long hours of hard labor. She lives between shelters and some nights sleeps outside. She finds the world is full of kind people, like the woman in the food truck on Third Street who gives her a sandwich and apple juice every day when Lisa is done working. She eats in the park, sharing her meal with hungry pigeons, writing in her music notebook. She plays the piano. With the lack of a piano, she practices in a stairwell close to the metro line, sitting on a step and pretending the one above is the piano.
As she speaks of future goals I notice that her backpack has a broken zipper, that sneakers under the cot are torn at the front. In a few months she will begin community college and one day will teach music to high school students, teach how powerful music is. How a song can make you feel compassion; how lyrics can remind you of beauty; how a chorus can bring peace to pain.
“I could be angry,” she whispers. “My mom died. My father hurt me, badly. I have no siblings. I prayed to get out, and now I pray that I won’t be angry, ever. That by forgiving those who hurt me I will remember not to hurt anyone, not physically, but with words, lies, or bad advice.”
Lisa yawns, begins to unfold her blankets. “Am I allowed to ask what you do for a living?”
I smile, place another blanket at her feet in case she gets cold, then sit down on the floor. I am a college professor, writer, and volunteer hospital chaplain. She points at her backpack and asks me to pull out the music notebook. Inside is a collection of songs she is transcribing note by note. The songs are etched in color pencils. Most of the songs are familiar to me, having played them at church. Suddenly a mental picture of Lisa’s household comes to mind: prayer, forgiveness, music, hymns, church. She knows the bigger picture.
I look up from her notebook, attempting to break my own train of thought. We talk about favorite classical musicians, times we volunteered our musical gifts to play in places in which people usually don’t have the beauty of music around them. For a moment we both forget where we are and get lost in memories.
“What was your biggest concern, like two weeks ago?” she asks.
“Writer’s block. I thought painting my office would inspire me.”
“I get it. What color did you choose?”
“Something with words ‘crystal’ and ‘blue’ in it. I haven’t painted yet.”
She laughs and points to her backpack containing a silver lockbox with color pencils and encourages me to find a better color for the walls. Her generosity is humbling. She owns but a few items that bring her happiness, yet she is willing to share. We select a color together and I get to keep the pencil. After hours of talking, I wish her a good night. As I walk away she calls me back.
“I know you can’t talk about religion here,” she says. “Would you pray with me? I pray. It’s been a while since someone prayed with me.”
There have been many moments in my life when I recognize the words in our prayers are placed there by the Holy Spirit. I feel their weightlessness, all cares, carried to heaven. We pray together. That night I sit on the frayed carpet, watch the rain fall, and thank God for keeping us all safe and warm.
I walk through the STORE. I find the black backpack I had seen earlier, pack it with supplies (fewer weathered shoes, more toiletry bags, a sweater, a poncho). Back in the Resting Place I quietly place the backpack at the end of Lisa’s cot. Maybe she will accept these few items. I can imagine how tempting it must be to give up on hope, give up on goals, dreams. Daily evidence that goodness abounds can be difficult to find. As the light from one of the security team flashlights crosses Lisa’s backpack I notice a small Bible in the side pocket of her backpack. She is searching. I have a small Bible in my backpack. Why not?
Early morning, a warm breakfast served by 4:00 a.m., guests leave quietly before sunrise. Helping other volunteers, I lose track of time. When I reach the Resting Place, I notice some cots are missing blankets (probably stowed away in backpacks). I doubt anyone will complain. Lisa was a no-show at breakfast, but I hear she took plenty of individually wrapped food in her backpack. Under her cot, neatly organized, are Lisa’s torn backpack, torn shoes. A small scroll is hiding under the backpack. It’s a torn page from the notebook. At the top, in blue pencil, a note: “Thanx 4 the book. C’ya soon!”
I look at the song and smile. I look up and see God’s canvas: the colors create a new day. With one word He can change these young lives. He will. Even if I don’t see it with my own eyes, He is watching over them.
As I exit the building, I glance at the closed dark-blue door. Tears blur my vision. I pray my work was acceptable, honest in God’s sight. I begin my long journey home. I take out Lisa’s music from my backpack and hum: “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring; holy wisdom, love most bright.” Reading through the colorful pencils used, I recognize how much black and white has permeated my daily living. In 48 hours I have walked the entire colorful gradient of human emotion. God’s canvas creates a beautiful portrait of mercy for all. What would be the names of the colors we use to minister?
“Word of God, our flesh that fashioned with the fire of life impassioned . . .” I look at the pencil that Lisa and I decided was the perfect color for my home office. I will call Randy, the “paint specialist,” with an inspired request to change the color. I am ready to commit.
Dixil Rodriguez, a college professor and volunteer hospital chaplain, lives in Texas.