more than just a sack lunch

With an almost wholly free day ahead of us to spend in Boulder, Colorado, my partner and I decided to try and make it something of a holy day, as well. The ground was covered in snow and the temperature was hovering around zero degrees, so worshiping in the great outdoors was not a very pleasant option. He suggested we put together some sack lunches to hand out to our homeless brothers and sisters, and I readily agreed.

This is not a post to make us sound like saints, though. I’ve written before about the some of my feelings on encountering the homeless (“street corner”). It is easy to feel like “what will this matter,” wondering how this little drop in the bucket will help them. I admit that I far too often use that as an excuse for inaction. Being able to do something on this bone-chilling day helps me feel better, and can maybe atone just a bit for all those times when I’ve done nothing.

So on this day, we’ve just visited friends in their cozy house and enjoyed a hot lunch that we were privileged to pay for ourselves. We hand off a lunch sack to someone who hurries into a gas station to warm up for a minute and hopefully find a restroom he can use.

We drive through town in our heated minivan full of all the things we need for a few days. Stepping out of the car, we tromp through the snow to find a man who holds most of his possessions in a large backpack. “Hope you can stay safe out here, it’s awfully cold out,” I wish him, wondering how he makes it out here and if I shouldn’t just offer him a ride around town in the heated car instead.

Later, walking down the street for a few blocks looking for a couple more people, we start to feel just how cold it is. The cold is penetrating my clothing and my toes hurt. My nostrils are freezing and my lips are starting to numb up. I think my brain would start to numb up soon, too, if I stayed out here for much longer. I am torn between finding shelter for myself and walking just a little bit further, because even if we don’t find someone, I can understand at least a little better how it feels to stand out on street corners for hours on end. I wish that by my tasting just the tiniest portion of their suffering, it might relieve their suffering a little bit.

And in the end, I wonder if the answer lies in understanding each other’s suffering and not being afraid to connect with each other despite that. I spend too much of my time closing my eyes, seeing yet not doing. A part of my soul hurts for people while I feel helpless — or simply choose not– to act. When I do nothing, I do not suffer. I go on to my next meal, my next warm place to rest or be entertained (or do some homework). I can forget about my suffering brothers and sisters until I drive past them next time… right?

What if it were not so easy? What if their suffering was truly my suffering? And moreover, what if by connecting with them for even just a moment, I was helping to heal a teeny-tiny place of brokenness in the fabric of humanity?

Because more than the peanut butter and jelly sandwich was the moment of human connection. The moment of implicit “Hey, I noticed you,” and even, “Hey, I was hoping to come across you so I made this ahead of time for you.” The brief exchange of conversation. The “Happy New Year” well-wishes. An exchange so surprisingly average for people in two very different places of life, but who share a common human bond.

I’m glad I got to do something today, but I still worry for people who have to find a way to survive in sub-zero temperatures tonight. I’m grateful for places like Boulder Bridge House that helps people during the day with meals and links for jobs, and for the Boulder Shelter that operates in winter months for overnight housing, and for Attention Homes that reaches out especially to homeless and at-risk teenagers. All these places have volunteering opportunities, if you’re interested and in the Boulder area.

I want to be able to keep my eyes open, to keep my heart soft. I want to be able to take action even when it is uncomfortable, when I am unprepared. I want to risk, but I am afraid. “Follow me,” Jesus told his disciples, and they dropped everything to follow after a vagabond rabbi. A homeless prophet, one might say.

How will I respond to a call to serve? How will I respond to a chance to stitch back together our broken human fabric?

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