I will never forget my first experience serving as a volunteer in a homeless shelter. After I was trained, I was assigned a three hour shift on a Sunday night at a church not far from the church where I served as pastor. My shift was to be from 8:00 till 11:00 P.M. I helped to register the homeless persons as they arrived. Each one received a foam pad for a mattress, a small pillow, a sheet and a blanket. After they received their gear, we took them into the fellowship hall where they were to sleep on the floor.
There was a row of tables and chairs dividing the room. Men slept on one side and women and children on the other. No children registered that evening, but one young woman was in the late stages of pregnancy. Before my shift was through her labor pains had started and an ambulance had been called to take her to the hospital.
In all, about twenty-five persons came to the shelter on that cold November evening. Most of them were young men in their twenties and thirties. It was evident that they all knew each other, probably because they had sheltered together before on the street and in the churches after the shelter program began. A few of the men were quiet and kept to themselves, but several of them gathered around a large African American man named Bill, who seemed to be a kind of leader in the group. They shared a warm camaraderie that was a joy to behold. They did not have homes and, in most cases jobs, but they had each other, and clearly they enjoyed one another’s company.
About ten o’clock, I went into the kitchen to make popcorn and to distribute snacks that had been provided by members of all the churches participating in the program. Almost everyone came to get a cookie and a cup of coffee and then went back to the table where some of the men were engaged in a game of cards. Bill brought out an apple pie which he said he had purchased from among some of the day-old items at one of the bakeries. He sliced the pie and began to distribute pieces to all of his friends.
I watched hungrily, hoping he might offer me a piece, too. I felt guilty about my feelings because I knew I would be going home in an hour and could have anything I wanted to eat out of our family’s well stocked pantry.
I stood there looking on, envious of their fellowship as I wallowed in my middle class angst. Bill must have sensed my hunger, because just then he looked up and asked if I would like to have a piece of pie. I eagerly said yes, and quickly joined him and the others at the table. It felt good to be included in their group. As I ate the pie and joined in the conversation, I became aware that we were sharing what our Lord Jesus called “the bread of life,” and I knew I was in his presence.