Photo of the Deluxe Inn, from last winter, found on flikr
This post is written after reading Christine's "challenge" post.
We have a food pantry in my church - in the building where I work. "Building" sounds fancy...it is a very small building and the pantry is right down the hall. So when people come in to get food, I almost always greet them. (Though most of the food is taken to a weekend day shelter and distributed there, we do have ten or so people, mostly parishioners, who come in to help themselves.)
A fellow named "Ted" has come for the last few years and gotten food. I've been pleasant and warm to him, of course, but never tried to reach out a whole lot. Mostly because he is a single man and not anyone I'd seen at mass. I wonder if he used drugs in his youth, or had some sort of Vietnam injury. He must be on disability. He comes to us on his bike, so he is physically healthy in that way. But he has thick glasses, and radiates somehow "down and out". He has a crew cut. He stoops. A time or two he's helped himself to the bag of returnable cans that my children save for spending money.
A couple of weeks ago, he wanted to take with him more than he could take on his bicycle and asked if he could put some of it aside to get later. Something prompted me to suggest that I just bring it to him. To my amazment he lives much, much further from the church than I would ever have imagined (someone to travel on a bike!). Maybe 5 miles - and even more amazing, he lives in a sad sort of motel RIGHT on our way home. I drive PAST it. So, of course I agreed readily. That kindness caused him to ask me humbly if maybe we had any toilet paper I could bring him. Well, we didn't - in the pantry - but obviously I was going to bring him toilet paper! So the kids and I went to the grocery store and got him TP, and I had them each think of some other things that we don't usually have in the pantry that he might like....yoghurt, oranges and bananas, candy, nuts and paper towel. Then we went to the motel.
TheDeluxe Inn is a place of "ill repute" in our town, to say the least. At least once a week we see police cars there as we drive by. Last year there was a murder there. A woman I know adopted a baby who was abandoned there in a squalid room. The alarming thing (as one who toured in theatre for years and stopped frequently at motels off the highway) it looks OK from the outside and I don't doubt that they actually have regular travelers stop there and stay the night as well. But in finding Ted's room, I realize how one place can have two "personas". The streetside rooms appear to be reserved for real motel patrons. The inside rooms, on a sort of courtyard, are something altogether different. When we walked through that passageway we entered a completely different world. We were suddenly in a sort of community. People's doors were open; people were standing outside talking, or squating against the wall smoking. We were eyed curiously. What made it clear we didn't belong there? Just their all knowing one another? On the way to Ted's room, I glanced in an open window..... a heavy-set, very young woman, 16 or 17, sat cross-legged on an unmade bed. Disposable diapers falling out of a bag, a box of cookies.... She was talking on a cell phone. A toddler of maybe 28 months, clung to the window, looking out. Dirty little face, dirty shirt, dirty hands, matted hair. One glance. I can't forget.
We gave Ted his sacks, and didn't wait for him to open them, but scurried out. But we have gone back a time or two since. Once at his request. Another time at our own suggestion. Then last Sunday night at Mass, during the sign of peace, Ted is behind me, touching my shoulder, wishing me peace. That is good.
But there are always ragged edges. Maybe I should have warmly greeted the girl on the bed. Ask if she could use some baby clothes. Last week Ted showed up with a crew of guys. How can I reach out in special ways to them all? Especially the most needy are not needy in terms of money alone, but needy in terms of social skills, ability to cope with the world. I took Ted groceries and now see endless need.....
I suppose this is why we must pray diligently. Respond to the promptings of the spirit. I can't do it all. I really can't do much. Go through that passage to the other side of the Deluxe Inn and risk being sucked dry. I've decided it is only with God's help I can make the right decisions about how, when, who to extend myself to. Never, as a young woman would I have accepted for a moment such limitations. But I have to accept them now. To be consumed, it seemed to me as a young woman, was to be like Christ. And, perhaps I haven't really changed in that. I just realize that it is my family that has the first right to my energies and I have the responsibility to them, to give of myself wisely and in measured ways to others. Mother Teresa said, "Love begins by taking care of the closest ones… the ones at home."