Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Gift of Inner-Dependence


Hannah getting toiletries for the women
One of my first weeks with Franciscan Outreach, my volunteer community had a group reflection on service and what that meant to each of us.  I remember thinking and hoping that service could be about more than a one-sided exchange of offering help to others.  Some of the ideas brought up by our group were that service can be a mutual exchange, that there is a sense of equality with those we are serving, or that we can find inner-dependence with those we serve rather than trying to be independent ourselves but viewing them as dependent on our services.  All these sounded great to me, but during the reflection I grew unsettled because our conversation seemed so idealistic.  I didn't know how we could practically find inner-dependence or equality or mutual exchange with our guests when, to be honest, they are coming to us for food and shelter while we already have those needs met.  Even in a relational sense I didn't understand what these ideals about service could look like.  I figured the nature of the program would lead me to depend more on my fellow volunteers for relational support than on the guests.  Our volunteer group is an intentional community formed around common values, living and serving together.  With the guests on the other hand, we don't see them as often, and when we do, it's almost always in the regulated context of us serving them as volunteers.  With all this on my mind, I left the reflection wondering "How do I still find inner-dependence with the guests?  How can I still approach service as something more than 'helping the less fortunate' (a view which unwittingly belittles those being served)?"

Women's dorm
Well, I didn't find an answer to my concerns that afternoon, but now that I've been working for months, I recently realized I do find support in the women, and I see them supporting each other.  There is a form of inner-dependence there.  It just took me time to discover what it would look like and become aware of it.  One of the central ways I find inner-dependence at the shelter is in the diversity of personalities we have there.  The shelter is not the ideal community environment - many of our guests face especially difficult life situations - yet I see some of the women bring life to the shelter with their different personalities.  I'm grateful for the combination of temperaments we have because the women positively contribute to the dorm environment in different ways.  Some are jubilant, others are giving, caring, funny, optimistic, helpful, easy-going, or down-to-earth; and there are many other traits that I don't have time to list.  I love seeing the women uniquely serve and support each other, and myself, through their individual gifts and strengths.

As I'm writing this post, a number of women come to mind who exemplify the supportive presence I'm talking about.  They contribute to the community and peace there, and over the days, weeks, or months that I know them, I really grow to appreciate these individuals.  One of these women is particularly caring and relaxed.  I never hear her complain, and she almost always has a smile for others.  I admire the way she treats those around her, and one night I wrote down in my journal that despite sharing the dorm with so many other women, "she doesn't see others as nuisances or threats; she sees them as people.  And she cares about them."  I was prompted to record this because I want to remember the ways she's inspired me.

Another woman has a sweet, quiet, temperament, and she's very giving.  She always makes sure to wish me a good day before she leaves.  I've seen her share food or toiletries with other women, and one night when a different regular guest didn't show up, this woman asked about her, wanting to make sure she was okay.  She has even brought in a few potted flowers to brighten up the shelter.

A third woman recently attended a spirituality support group we have every Monday morning.  At the end of the group, we shared prayer requests, and hers was for peace.  As I left the group that day, I realized that she is praying for peace, but she also helps bring peace to the shelter.  She has a soft, kind manner, and I never see her lashing out at other guests.

Volunteers on St. Patrick's day
On a different note, one woman tends to be quite loud, but always cheerfully so.  She'll come in singing and sharing stories.  She'll wake up singing or excitedly talking about her cute outfit for the day.  She'll be moving into a housing program soon, but when she shared this great news with me she added "you all are going to miss me aren't you?  I'll come back and volunteer!"

I have shared about these four women in particular, but there are many others that I haven't mentioned who have come through our doors and blessed me and those around them.  I am only one person, and as hard as I try, I cannot support all 40 women as much as I would like.  But in midst of my limitations, the women come through for each other and for me.  Sometimes a new woman comes in uncertain or upset, and I don't get a chance to make sure she's okay, but I'll see another guest talking to her, showing her around, and helping her out.  Other times women come in, and despite being in an emergency shelter, they bring a good time with them.  They find people to laugh and joke with, or they spend their free time doing each other's hair.  Lastly, in almost all of the women, I have witnessed an inspiring resilience.  I regularly hear guests say they are grateful to be alive, or they are blessed to wake up every morning.  Despite the difficulties they are facing, they don't let their situations keep them from seeing life as a gift or from finding happiness in their daily routines.  Every shift I work, I get glimpses of this resilience in the words and actions of the women, and in this way, they continually give me, and each other, hope.

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