Each winter, I help out at the Forest Churches Emergency Night Shelter. This is an ecumenical project, open the five coldest months of the year. Guests (or “clients”) visit different local churches on different nights of the week. They get an evening meal, somewhere safe to sleep, and breakfast. St Andrew’s is too cold to offer sleeping facilities, so some of us help out at Leytonstone United Free Church.
I help with the breakfast shift twice per month. I rock up at about 6am, and spend the next two hours preparing and setting out food, keeping the coffee machine topped up, loading and unloading the dishwasher and washing things that don’t go in it. There isn’t much time to chat with guests, but maybe that’s just as well: most of us aren’t too chatty at 6am.
This is my fourth winter helping at the shelter. It started at the beginning of November and my first shift was Monday morning. I was dreading it, to be perfectly honest.
It isn’t getting up at 5am every two weeks, though that can be tough. It isn’t the work itself: the kitchen is spacious, well-appointed and reasonably ergonomic. The other volunteers are no problem either: those I work alongside are relaxed, dedicated and good-natured. Nevertheless, I found myself not wanting to go.
Of course, I went anyway. I’d love to say my expectations were thwarted. I wish I could say I went along and had a fantastic time, that I’m actively looking forward to my next shift. I can’t say that. It wasn’t awful, because that isn’t in the nature of the work. But I didn’t really enjoy it, and probably won’t next time.
I am quite a practical person and I take great encouragement from seeing some kind of progress or improvement resulting from my actions. I practice the organ or another instrument and I improve. I teach music to a choir or a pupil; they learn, and their music making gets better. I read or pray or write and I change and grow into a truer, stronger version of myself. I have conversations over cups of peppermint tea and refine my ideas, and maybe someone else’s, by giving them voice and space. I like progress, I value improvement.
There is progress at the shelter: every year some guests are helped into transitional housing. But the personal connection there is tenuous. Going every two weeks with an ever-shifting selection of guests, my attention on the kitchen and my sketchy memory for faces means I don’t even learn most of their names. Any progress is nearly imperceptible to me, and so I get little enjoyment out of the work. Other avenues for improvement are exhausted; I had worked out the most efficient way to dry the mugs within four visits back in 2010, and one can only get so good at slicing cheese.
But I’m not there because I expect the work to be enjoyable. I’m not even there because I crave the attention and praise of those who think this work is good and necessary. I go to volunteer at the shelter because the work needs to be done. I go because each and every one of the guests has real value and worth. I go bcause I believe these people are beloved children of God, made in God’s image. I go because my faith commands me to care for those in need. I go because the only way to live in a world where all receive care is to contribute toward that care as and when and how I can. I go because so many others won’t. I go because there is only one flesh we can wound.
I will keep going.
Sometimes things don’t have to feel wonderful to be the right thing to do.