Written by: Kate Snyder, Executive Assistant
Back in December, our Volunteer Coordinator was approached by a young man looking to volunteer with EECM’s homeless shelter. Most volunteers who come to the shelter are there to provide a meal -- congregations and community groups provide dinner at the shelter 365 days a year. But Wil wanted something more interactive, more hands on.
And so, once a week, Wil hangs out at the shelter. He has no agenda, no fixed assignment. When asked why he’s there, he responds “I’m here to help out.” He pitches in serving the meal when needed; he assists the shelter monitors when appropriate. But mostly, he just…is. We call it friendship ministry. Others, a ministry of presence. Wil calls it relationship building.
He wants to meet the guys in the shelter. Talk with them about their lives. Make them feel important, valued, not over-looked as they so often are in life. To phrase it theologically, he seeks to share the relational nature of God with the men in our shelter. In the vernacular, he just wants to get to know them.
In an effort to be respectful, Wil says he doesn’t usually initiate conversations – he doesn’t wish to intrude if someone is seeking solitude. But the men are generally curious about his presence amongst them and conversation flows easily over a variety of topics. He’ll stand outside with the circle of men smoking cigarettes, chatting about the weather and the Steelers game. Or he’ll watch TV and join in answering the Jeopary questions, or participate in a discussion about the latest feature on CBS news.
The conversation is usually neutral – sports, weather, television – but personal stories are interspersed throughout the more impersonal topics. Occasionally a man will share some of the journey that led him to the shelter. One was a drug addict who periodically attempted to clean up but each time relapsed back into addiction. He finally hit bottom when he borrowed a family member’s car and then sold it for drug money. Until then, he had avoided homelessness by staying with family members but, as he ruefully acknowledged, this time he had burned his bridges. The man says he's on his way back up now, though, having completed a rehab program. He’s optimistic about the future.
Over time, relationships form. The population of the shelter is transient by nature and it can be difficult to establish connections. But some of the shelter clients now greet Wil enthusiastically by name and he considers this to be a good sign. EECM’s Emergency Homeless Service Manager is exuberant in his praise of Wil’s time at the shelter. He says “We often have volunteers who want to come and clean or paint, and those are obviously important tasks. But we’re equally concerned with taking care of the internal. And that really takes a special kind of person.”