Serving Others

We are living in strange times. This “Great Recession” we’re in may not qualify yet as a depression but the impact its having on all of us, without question, is depressing.

On a daily basis, I wrestle with the knowledge that I have great abundance in my life yet still want more. In fact, just last week, before attending our friends’ annual Epiphany party, I threw my own private epiphany party, unleashing a woe-is-me tirade on poor DH about all of the things in life that we haven’t yet achieved.

I could only view our glass as half-empty. I failed to see how full it actually is.

I have a hard time living in the moment. I pulsate in a constant state of projecting forward. I don’t know why I can’t be appreciative for the many blessings I have rather than the things I don’t. Instead, I live under the false pretense that offspring should do as well as, if not better than, their parents. This is rudely compounded by the fact that both DH and I grew up in affluent communities with multiple advantages at our reach. I’ve whined written about this change in lifestyle before, so I won’t go into it again but it’s the constant cross I carry.

This past weekend I laid my cross down.

Three years ago, my church adopted a new mission called the Metrowest Interfaith Hospitality Network (MIHN for short). This ministry serves families that are in transition. Families who have lost their homes, usually by foreclosure or eviction, and are doing all they can to get back on their feet. Our church, along with 16 other local houses of worship, converts classroom space into bedrooms for one week, four times a year in order to house families in the MIHN system.

At our church it takes a crew of nearly 60 volunteers to host anywhere from 3-14 guests each visit. Volunteers to convert our Sunday School classrooms into temporary bedrooms; volunteers to cook and deliver meals every day; volunteers to act as overnight hosts and sleep at the church each night; volunteers to host the guests during their meals; and volunteers to break it all down at the end of the hosting week. In short, it takes a village.

I have been on the list of MIHN volunteers for as long as our church has been involved. For as long as our church has been involved, I have failed to do anything more than an occasional set up. I did not fail this time.

When you have young kids and a traveling spouse, it can be hard to do all of the things your heart  pulls you to do. MIHN has been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. On Saturday, my stars aligned.

Thanks to the New England Patriots being a pretty good football team and our church congregation consisting of A LOT of Pats fans (my family excluded), there was a dearth of volunteers for Saturday night. The same Saturday night that the Pats kicked off against the Broncos in a 7pm playoff game.

Desperate e-mails seeking dinner and overnight hosts went out two days before and it was enough to kick me into action. I had a deep urge to involve my whole family, especially our 5yo daughter, E, who we  think is old enough to grasp things like this and be impacted.

Promptly at 5, we hastened to the church to welcome the vans of MIHN guests arriving from the day shelter.

I was already armed with the knowledge that we had a full house: four families consisting of five adults and eight children, including a 6-week-old infant who had just come “home” from the hospital for the first time to his new “church home.”

The children were ages: 13, 11, 9, 6, 6, 4, 3 and 6-weeks. I knew my kids would have others their age they could play with but I had no idea the impact the experience would have on us all. Aside from names and ages, I had no idea what to expect.

In volunteer trainings we were taught not to ask any questions, not to expect guests to want to open up or perhaps even interact with us at all. We were asked just to be ourselves and be gracious and accepting and open. Not to pass judgment, interfere, usurp or undermine anyone’s lifestyle, appearance, parenting or actions.

The first thing I expected to do was serve dinner (prepared and delivered by another corps of volunteers) and possibly bless the meal. But by the time I joined the table, most guests had either finished, rejected or reinvented their meals and few seemed interested in getting to know us. It didn’t take the kids long, however, to band together and convert our staid house of worship into a lively house of fun.

I love that about kids, how all they need is a mutual item, like a ball, a game or a toy to bond a friendship. I wish adults had it so easy.

E quickly gravitated to an angelic 4yo that I’ll call Ruby. Ruby has long, flaxen blond hair, puppy-dog eyes and a spritley figure, very much like a Gelfling . Despite recent hardships, like loosing their home, moving around between day shelters and various houses of worship, becoming a big sister and having parents under duress–including pending cranial surgery for their infant—Ruby had an energetic, can-do attitude. She was helpful, loving, happy and polite. All adjectives I long to describe my own daughter with but often can’t.

E and Ruby were fast friends.

Despite my own inability to practice what I preach, DH and I focused on helping our guests live in their moments, rather than projecting uncertain futures. We showed the kids our church’s huge reception hall and entertained a lively game of freeze tag there. We made cookie dough and baked fresh cookies to add the smell of home to their stay. Another church member brought in a bread machine and vowed to provide the guests with fresh-baked bread at every meal. We focused on little comforts to help them surmount the massive discomforts life has dealt them recently.

And when it was time for bed, E, who saw our whole experience as a grand adventure, willingly climbed into her sleeping bag, atop her air mattress and fell fast asleep. Only to awake promptly at 5:15 the next morning, after a restless night too close to freezing, single-paned windows. Patiently awaiting  permission to seek her new-found friend.

Writing about it now is still a work in “process,” I was so flooded by emotions of how people were coping with their situations, how families were dealing with their transience, of how these hard economic times are impacting our neighbors…in a breath, it could be any of us.

Driving home from church on Sunday…before church on Sunday…I cried most of the way. My daughter, who hones in on human fallibility like a praying mantis on her mate, struck out from the back seat: “why are you crying mom?” To which I replied: “because, do you realize that our church home is the only home Ruby has right now?”

Silence. Then sniffles. I glanced in the rearview, my daughter was crying too.

I knew at that moment, she got it. As we drove home to our warm house, a hot breakfast awaiting, I knew that she was aware she was deeply blessed and was deeply grateful. The ministry had ministered. The gift returned.

Tonight, in a church just down the street, we stopped in to see Ruby and her family, just to say hello. E says she wants to make sure, that even though Ruby doesn’t have a home right now, she still knows she has friends.


10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Heather Kelly
    Jan 19, 2012 @ 10:24:55

    I am so glad that you have such an open heart. And that E is so kind and sensitive about emotions–she reminds me of my S in that way.

    I am waiting until I am ready to take a similar plunge at MIHN at our church–but you already knew that. In the meantime, I ready the classrooms, and help our children make fleece knot blankets for our youngest guests to take with them wherever they go next.

    Having what we need is a blessing. The ability to give the same to others is a gift. I am so thankful that you were the first face those families saw when they rolled up to your church after a long, uncertain day!

    Sometimes I worry that events will change me. Most of the time, I worry that they will not. 🙂

    What a blessing you were to those families.


    • growingmuses
      Jan 20, 2012 @ 14:52:43

      Well thanks. That’s funny that you say E is kind and sensitive about emotions because I often worry that she lacks compassion and at the end of the day, isn’t compassion really one of the most valuable attributes one can have? I sure hope all of the volunteers involved in MIHN are received as blessings and not encumbrances. I felt I may have gained more in my 12 hours with these families than they did from my 12 hour interlude.

      I look forward to the day, hopefully soon, when you feel called to serve with MIHN, surely your family will bring many bright spots to those in need.


  2. slightlywonky
    Jan 19, 2012 @ 13:36:39

    What an amazing experience for you and E! You must feel so lucky to have been able to help and to know that you have most of your needs met. This has been a tough experience for many. It’s tremendous that you chose to help in this way. Kudos to you!


    • growingmuses
      Jan 24, 2012 @ 11:40:47

      Thanks, Z. Yes, a slight turn in circumstances seems to be the only difference between many of us and these families. It was a powerful experience that I didn’t realize would have such a lasting impact. Staying the night didn’t seem like much of a contribution at first.


  3. Sarah B
    Jan 19, 2012 @ 19:46:42

    This, I think, is my favorite post of yours to date. And it has left me too emotional to be eloquent, so I’ll leave it at this: lovely.


    • growingmuses
      Jan 24, 2012 @ 11:42:32

      Thanks, Sarah. I really appreciate your commendation. Life is like that, a work in process. I’m glad that my writing about it came across well. Thanks for reading.


  4. Auntie Boo
    Jan 20, 2012 @ 10:19:15

    Read this in my break between classes and it left me very emotional (nothing quite like crying in the classroom).

    You and DH always serve as such an inspiration to me in how I hope to someday raise our clan.

    So much more I wanted to say, but just can’t quite get it out… Your post was so beautifully and eloquently written.


    • growingmuses
      Jan 24, 2012 @ 11:44:53

      ow, coming from you this is really high accolades. Irony never fails as the bar you set on the Auntie front is raised to a level unachievable in my attempts. Thanks for thinking we’re doing a good job. You know we will be there every step of the moral-support way when you have wee folk of your own some day. I hope I’ll be even half as good at being an auntie by then…


  5. Wendy Lawrence
    Jan 25, 2012 @ 14:02:24

    I love this post and want to thank you so much for all that you do! I used to do a nighttime shelter at my Temple in Seattle, and it would be so wonderful to do that with my whole family–you’ve inspired me to look for one again! Right now, I volunteer with a program at the woman’s prison in which I help mentor a partner for 8 weeks. Keeping an open mind is so important and I always learn more than I suspect I am giving. It is so important that people understand how small differences separate us from all these different populations of people–I think the world would be less divisive if people could see the similarities between all of us.


    • growingmuses
      Jan 25, 2012 @ 14:14:13

      Thanks, Wendy! Thanks for reading and thanks for being so supportive. As you can see, sometimes the smallest acts of kindness take a long time to happen. Having small kids can limit our abilities to serve as much as we might like but involving our kids, when we/they are ready can make the experiences and actions so much more valuable. I hope you find something that speaks to you like the shelter in Seattle. Is the inmate partnership connected with reading or writing?


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