By: Sophie Beal
We have a lot of pre-conceived notions about what it means to be homeless and at least as many ideas about what it means to serve the homeless. I’ve always felt awkward telling people that I work at a homeless shelter because I can almost see whoever I’m talking with painting a picture in their mind of what that looks like . . . probably something along the lines of me in an apron doling out soup from behind a counter. Yikes.
I’m happy to say that my day-to-day looks nothing like that and, while I’m proud of my work, I in no way feel like I’m doing a “nice” thing. For my first year at the Gateway Center, I gave out travel-sized shampoos, dug through bins in search of matching socks, and rolled neat bundles of toilet paper to hand directly to clients (so as to avoid toilet-paper theft from the bathrooms—a huge issue in the past, apparently). I was yelled at by those I “served,” got called all sorts of fun names, and was even sneezed on in the face. Glamorous, indeed.
Most days I don’t feel like I’m making any recognizable difference, but I’ve learned to see my “service” as also an act of justice—rebellion, even. Society wants us to believe that our homeless deserve to be invisible—that “they” are all the same and can be defined by their situation. Homeless people, rather than people experiencing homelessness.
From a Christian perspective, I’ve found myself asking: Weren’t Jesus’ greatest teachings about seeing the invisible and listening to their stories? Weren’t his most revolutionary acts as simple as touching someone who everyone else thought was “untouchable?” I felt called to work with people experiencing homelessness in Atlanta after graduating from my picturesque East-Coast liberal arts college because I felt there was something out-of-sync between the values I held and the life I lived. While I’d always believed in social justice and the power of Jesus’ teaching that I am called to do unto others as I would have them do unto me, I realized that some of my prejudices run just as deep as my values.
Working at Gateway has been a humbling experience, but it has not been about me helping other people—although I hope I am. Rather, it is about others helping me to grow. While I’ve witnessed inspiring change in traditional activist contexts (protests, conferences, etc.), I’ve found that some of the most radical transformations occur when we create space to listen to others’ stories and learn from people with whom we’d never otherwise have the chance to form relationships.
“Service” is about these mutual transformations. Entering into communion with strangers. Learning from each other. Helping to change lives, while open to being changed in return.