Over New Year’s I went on my favorite retreat and it was, as it often is, a huge source of grace in my life and heart.
One phrase from the retreat has been echoing in my mind these past three months–over and over.
There was a “Vocation Panel” one afternoon. I was ready to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. I’ve been to a few vocations panels in my day. This is what they look like, generally: a person representing each of the permanent vocations (marriage, religious life, priesthood, sometimes a single person) will be sitting down. One by one they’ll share their stories. Full disclosure: generally speaking, good times to be had by all, with little interaction from the audience? Who doesn’t love to hear soundbite stories of God’s active love and labor in people’s lives?
Now, I’ve attended scores of these panels, and I wasn’t expecting to be particularly touched. But, I was.
The final presenter was an aged religious sister, or (colloquially) a “nun.”
She talked about her movement towards religious life, her time spent across the world serving God and the church.
Finally, she talked about celebrating her 50th anniversary of becoming a religious sister. She said, reflecting on that moment she thought: “I thought that this was my gift to God. But, it turns out…it was His gift to me.”
She continued that, if He asked her to do it all again, she would….”of course.”
But the part that has been touching me has been this: I thought that this was my gift to God. But, it turns out…it was His gift to me.
Today I’m going to talk to you about working with the poor, which is kind of a huge part of the work I do in Detroit.
When I tell people I work in Detroit, a high percentage of people ask me, “Aren’t you scared?”
And the truth of the matter is: I’m not. Sometimes scary things happen, but I find that a little bit of street smarts, a healthy amount of caution, and a good support system take care of most things.
Sometimes people are like, “Oh, you’re so kind to do that.”
And that’s where I want to be like, “Yo, this is God’s gift to me.”
I had to the laugh the first few weeks of working there. I’ve blog-shared before that receiving gifts makes me uncomfortable. Internally, I’ve figured it out: I just feel guilty a little bit because I’m like, “Oh man, you could have spent that on yourself, and I can just be self-sufficient and get it myself.”
Enter working with the poor.
EVERY DAY (or just about), they give me something. Everyday.
Today, Friday, I looked at my desk. Over the past week, I had accumulated two handwritten notes of love/ gratitude, one page of poetry (written as an ode to me, I should add. A flippin’ ODE TO ME. What is my life), a bag of travel-kleenexes in assorted colors and designs, and a box of chocolate. IT’S NOT EVEN A SPECIAL WEEK. People are just that kind. Also, I mentioned to one man that I wanted to learn about podcasts (vote who should be on that panel in the comments), and he searched the internet for a good article, loaded it onto a jump drive, and brought it to my office for me to read. Plus, one deaf man who waves at me every day through the window brought me a mint, which I already ate.
There was a man with a mental delay who stopped in earlier in the week. I met him, we exchanged names. He asked me what my favored team was for March Madness, and I told him I didn’t have one and asked if he could make a recommendation. He recommended Michigan State. I told him I would take that recommendation to heart. He kissed my hand. He kissed my hand, you guys.
There is another man who wrestles with any number of demons who lives somewhere on the streets and alleys outside of my office. He usually walks into the foyer, where I (politely) screen guests, yells incoherent words, and storms out. Many times he sees something in the office that he likes, usually a flyer in bright colors, and he hollers for it, pointing, until I give it to him.
Today he walked in and yelled, “I HAVE SOMETHING FOR YOU.”
“For me?” I asked.
He nodded and held up a glossy pamphlet. This is the first time he has ever given instead of taking something.
I walked to the door and took the pamphlet.
It was a vacationing brochure to Fort Wayne, Indiana, a city that’s about a three hour drive from Detroit.
I have no idea where he would have found such a brochure.
I took it anyway, and thanked him.
Even gifts from the unstable are gifts of love, generosity, and care.
These stories seem small, I guess, now that I read them. But, in real life, it’s super humbling to see people who don’t have access to adequate shelter, adequate food, adequate anything (one day someone was using toilet paper as facial tissue, and someone said, “Why don’t you use a Kleenex?” and the person said, “I can’t afford tissues”…and that person is one of our most faithful volunteers) be the most generous givers I have ever met.
It’s said that generosity isn’t measured by what we give but, rather, by what we have left.
Imagine someone who lived in squalor and made $14 a month in food stamps walked into your office and gave you a box of chocolates they probably bought at CVS–the only semblance of a store in our food dessert of a city.
Does that break your heart a little bit? Because it does mine.
But, I have also heard that receiving love is, in and of itself, another act of love.
So I take these things. And I thank the many faces. And I try to extend more love myself.
You know what? Serving can be hard, because anytime you give of yourself, you’ll face challenges. And that’s why parenting is hard and marriage is hard and working every day with the poor is hard. I’m not going to lie: there are very hard days and moments.
But, there’s a lot of grace, too.
I write this because this is the Year of Mercy. In special ways, we are asked to extend mercy to the world this year. Please, please, look over the lists. Go to the places where God is calling you. Extend some love.
Because, quite possibly, it won’t be your gift to God. Quite possibly it will be, instead, God’s gift to you.
But, I guess I can’t speak for you. I can only speak for myself. And the chocolate I ate (covering caramel! my favorite!) was delicious.