In August 2011, I received an email that was soliciting help and prayer for a new ministry in development in Springfield from my friend Tom. The ministry came out of a sad reality in Springfield, MO: there was no place for women alone to go for safe overnight shelter. This weighed on my heart. After thinking about it for a couple of weeks, I asked my congregation if anyone was interested in joining me to work at this shelter, and it was not an easy task to ask others to do… We stay up all night to let the women sleep in the knowledge that they are safe. In other words, if there is a problem in the night, volunteers are awake and ready to deal with it so that the residents can get a secure and healthy night’s rest. Three people came forward to join me, and we began with the launch of the shelter in October 2011.
We started in a small apartment near Commercial Street. On our first night, my fellow volunteer and I had just two residents to keep safe. As the homeless women of Springfield, assistance agencies, and the police department discovered us, we moved to larger quarters. We spent the winter at Pathways UMC, the Spring at East Sunshine Church of Christ, and the summer in a new facility. We move every few months and are anxiously awaiting the arrival of a longer-term facility in which we can truly make ourselves at home.
By home, I actually mean home. Safe to sleep is like a family with revolving members. There are the long-term residents that we know and love as well as new residents each week. The ways they care for and support each other are more family-like than I ever envisioned. Sure, there are squabbles occasionally, but families squabble. This morning, a resident with back problems decided on her own that she would go break down the bed of a less able-bodied resident without being asked. Then she took over another woman’s chore without complaint because she felt the other resident had taken on too much. The last time I was there, about two weeks ago, she was a new resident who was only interested in getting her own bed set up.
I have to admit: being a pastor volunteer has its challenges. Because I work with church members (our church now has 5 regular volunteers, 2 pending paperwork, and 2 more considering training), I do the regular volunteer duties and then spend intense one-on-one time being a pastor to the other volunteer. As the women get to know me and what I do, I do more pastoral care with the residents. Honestly, it is the single most exhausting thing I do, and I have moved from once a month for six months to twice or more a month this summer. It is hard to limit myself to only once a month because I feel so out of touch when I arrive. I miss the people I know and getting to see their move to greener (or otherwise) pastures. By being there every two weeks, I had a better connection with the resident while still maintaining the energy level I need to pastor my congregation.
It took me nine months to come out about my work at Safe to Sleep. I think It has taken me this long to process why it is so important to me and why I will continue to do it no matter the drain of staying up at least half the night to be the awake female volunteer. Instead of attempting to put a deeper meaning out, let me simply tell you the story of last night.
I arrived at 6 pm with an 18 year old soon-to-be college freshman. Another member of our church, a strong, active, wise woman from our mature adult Sunday School class was already there. It was her first time to stay the night, and she hadn’t been sure she would come. But there she as, in capris and a camp shirt, setting up chairs and tables with a resident while some women of the church prepared a sit down dinner for the residents and volunteers. Then our two other volunteers arrived, a college sophomore ready for her third night and another college sophomore trying it for the first time. The church was using a bit of the facility and there was a fancy dinner, so we were a bit off schedule… And it was laundry night for the bedding, so we broke down bags of pillows, pillow slips, sheets, and blankets from women who had been there during the month but weren’t there last night.
The bus arrived at around 7, and residents trickled in until about 10 pm, for a total of 18 or 19 by the time we turned the lights out. They arrived hungry, tired, sunburned. Two had been to the hospital that day. One probably needed to go back as she couldn’t keep any liquids down. I set up her bed with one of the girls while another volunteer cared for the sick resident. As I taught the potential volunteer how to set up the cot, the girl and I discussed her strategy for school in the coming year, and I was able to express some college experiences as well as my hope that she would apply herself. One of the residents heard us talking and jumped in, giving the girl sound advice from her experience as the parent of teenagers.
Yeah, there was a little drama during the evening that I was able to deal with easily because I had experience with the actors, but there was way more beautification than drama. One of the college students brought in her extensive collection of nail products, and we did nails (and laundry). One lady slept with her hands hanging off the bed so that she would make sure she could keep her gorgeous manicure as long as possible. After all, she had spent the entire evening hearing from the girls that they were completely jealous of her gorgeous nails and that she could be a hand model!
When the lights went out, the volunteers (count ’em: 5) went to a lighted area, and I made bracelets to order for the girls while our more mature volunteer heard more information about those girls than she probably ever wanted to know. And she saw all of their tattoos… No matter where they were. When she laid down to sleep, we went to another area, checking in on the residents and making sure the doors were secured about every half hour. I had some quality time with each girl and got to watch them bond as students and potential friends. We talked about the future and the present. The “tragedies” of the past get reframed by the experience of the shelter. We talked about boyfriends and church, school, and parents. And then I went face down into a pillow at 3:00, only to wake up at 5:45 for the work of the morning. And all of this came after a normal Sunday morning’s work.
It is now Monday night, and after napping most of the day, I am ready for bed. My hips hurt from the floor and I could go a week without doing another load of laundry. My heart, though, is full to bursting from the triumph of love over desperation and poverty, the hundred tiny threads of grace woven together in the night among women who used to be strangers to me and to each other, and the safety of an evening in my home.