Right now I’m sitting at the train station in Philly. The train back to Swat is running 40 min. late (strange for SEPTA) so I decided to take a few minutes to write a blog post.
Why am I in Philly at 11:12pm on a school night, you might ask?
I just got done with my last shift at SREHUP (The Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia, which is a fancy way of saying it’s a temporary homeless shelter staffed by college students). The shelter’s closing down in two days for the summer, and I’ll be busy tomorrow and Friday writing a 10-12 page SocAnth paper, so today was the last day I could go.
And to tell you the truth, I’m strangely sad. Not a “Omg, I pity that these homeless dudes will be out on the street again in two days” type of sad (that’s more like pity), but an authentic sadness wherein I won’t see many of these nomadic men again and I’ll miss the thought-provoking, paradigm-shifting conversations we had every night.
I started volunteering at SREHUP, which actually runs two shelters, last November, on Thanksgiving Day to be exact. I was looking for an excuse to turn down several kind of, sort of awkward invitations to people’s houses for Thanksgiving, and I decided that the best excuse I could come up with, which no one would dare question, would be to volunteer at a homeless shelter. This desire for an excuse coincided with a real need at SREHUP, which had just started up earlier that month, to have volunteers on Thanksgiving Weekend. They were actually, to a certain extent, growing desperate to find people, so I told one of the girls in the Christian Fellowship, who helped start it, that I could help out.
And wow, was it the most meaningful Thanksgiving of my life. There is something about sitting down with people of a completely different race, background, socioeconomic status than you on Thanksgiving that just seems right. I mean wasn’t that how the first Thanksgiving was? Sure, everything after it went down hill in terms of race relations, but on that one day, it’s at least mythically told that Native Americans and pasty white people who couldn’t feed themselves were able to sit down together and eat a meal. And while I love my family, and did miss being able to eat with them, I was thankful that I was able to eat with these men instead.
I volunteered a few more times at SREHUP’s Old First shelter after that, enough times for me to explore the United Church of Christ, the denomination Old First is affiliated with, and, through that, find my summer internship, but whenever I went, I still felt like there was a missing element. Members from the church would come in to cook the meal for the night, we would all sit down with the guests around tables to eat together (Such a wonderful picture of restoration/reconciliation. I cannot say that enough.), and then we, the college students, would be left to clean up. But to be honest, I wasn’t a fan of that. I didn’t want to clean up, I wanted to cook. I didn’t just want to be eating, I wanted to be deciding what was on the menu, and being thanked for cooking the meal, and getting all the credit for it. (Needless to say, I’m kind of a megalomaniac.)
Flash forward to spring break this semester, and I finally had the chance to start volunteering at SREHUP again. I had stopped during the first part of this semester because my schedule was crazy and I couldn’t find a good time to go. But I had decided to stay at Swat for an alternative spring break in Chester, and figured I might as well spend the extra time I had during the evenings/weekends to go to SREHUP. Plus, the Lang Center would provide me with free train tickets. Who doesn’t want a few free trips into Philly during spring break? However, rather than signing up at the Old First shelter, I decided to volunteer at Arch St. UMC. I had heard the shelter there especially needed help, as it had just started earlier in the semester. Moreover, there would be more flexibility at the Arch St. shelter. Old First has had their shelter in some form or another for over twenty years. The Arch St. shelter is still in its infancy, and has practically no policies. The students who come cook meals with whatever is available, and the men use disposable table ware. (Wonderful for clean up, terrible for the environment.) When one of my close friends and I volunteered at Arch St. the first Saturday of spring break, the security guard there was so surprised to find out that we were staying the night. Most students hadn’t been doing that after working the evening shift. Furthermore, when there, I found that the pantry was full of lots of food that had been donated by Upenn, but was terribly disorganized. The men were used to eating only meatballs or lasagna that one of the male graduate students had heated up at the end of a busy day, without any side dishes or dessert. Needless to say, it was a place in need of love.
I decided to volunteer there two days a week from spring break onward. At the same time, another student, taking a leave of absence from school so she could do an internship starting in April, decided to volunteer there every night. (I’m not sure if she actually decided to do this, or more just got roped into doing so because there were so few volunteers. Needless to say, she is one of my favorite people in the world. I look up to her so much.) With her help, my minimal amount of help, and the help of numerous other volunteers, the shelter really improved. I had so many good experiences at Arch St., from attempting to recover a chili that I had added too much salt too by adding even more cans of beans to it, to watching old VHS movies on the TV, to using this huge bear found in the nursery as a pillow at night, to having really real, really deep conservations with the men at the shelter about how the government, society, and businesses are failing to meet the needs of so many people. It was these conversations especially (and the thrill of somehow making a meal each time out of the most random foods) that kept me coming back, sometimes more than twice a week. The men at the shelter shared with me a perspective on life that I could never have found in an academic journal, or in the media, or in class. What they lack in formal education, they make up for in wisdom and common sense.
To sum it up, many of the guests at the shelter think we need to stop giving more power to those who already have power (*cough cough* corporations, millionaires… why didn’t the Buffet Rule pass?) and start paying more attention to those who are marginalized. We let so much talent and potential go to waste every day in this country because we are so focused on profits and economic success, and not on human success. (Personally, I have difficulty understanding why many pro-life conservatives value human life before it is born, but then vote against policies that support it afterwards, but that is a topic of another post…)
I am forever grateful that I was able to spend a few days these past weeks seeing the world from a completely different perspective, and giving bread to human wisdom.
Every life matters.
I’m going to miss these guys.