Many churches in the Indianapolis area support a homeless ministry by housing adults and children in their church building for a week. Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN) is a nationwide organization that helps families in practical ways, starting with finding a place to stay. The families spend the day at the downtown IHN office where volunteers and staff help them find permanent housing and jobs. The families return to the host church close to 6:00 p.m., where they have dinner, play games, and sleep in a Sunday school room converted to a bedroom.
Church members cook meals, drive the guests to and from the church, and plan activities for the children after dinner. The church provides towels and bedding for the guests which are stored in a large closet in the basement so when the families completed the program recently, I volunteered to take a couple of bags of laundry home.
I went downstairs to get my bags before church. I chose two, both of which were bulging in asymmetrical ways. Trying to keep my balance while carrying these bundles up the stairs was interesting as I had to shift my position and keep them from toppling over my head and downstairs again. However, the minute I picked up the plastic bag and held it to my chest, my heart was filled with God's presence.
I received with gratitude God's unexpected appearance doing an ordinary task. I took the bags home, dumping the towels, sheets and mattress covers on the living room floor and started what would end up being six loads of laundry. When I loaded the washer, I wondered who had used the towel or sheet I had. What circumstances led them to become homeless? I thought about the children who slept on the sheets, knowing how disruptive moving every seven days to another church can be to their emotional development and security.
Constantly seeing new people at church might impair healthy attachment and sense of trust. The stability children and adults need to function effectively can be missing with homeless individuals. The complexity of the physical, social and psychological toil homelessness can bring filled my heart with prayer and compassion for these nameless people. I could touch them through the remnants of their stay and offer prayer as they moved on to another church.
When I folded the clean and dry sheets, towels, and mattress pads, I prayed for the person who will use each of them in the future. I prayed that he or she would feel God close during this time of disruption and crisis. I prayed for a smooth transition from homelessness to home.
While I folded the stacks of bedding, I was reminded of an article I read in the March 2004 issue Oprah's "O" magazine. The author, Sara Davidson, describes her experience at a Benedictine abbey
in Bethlehem, Connecticut. She was able to participate in worship services and eat with the sisters. She learned all work was completed prayerfully and with love. Her last responsibility before leaving was to change bed linens.
She started by tugging at the sheet corners, trying to hurry along. Then she remembered how the nuns
"put love into the cheese, the flowers, and fruit they grow, the animals they care for, the shawls they weave, and the honey they make. Why not put love into the linens for the next guest who arrives feeling shy, uncertain, expectant? I slow down and smooth the pillows gently, tenderly as Mother Margaret Georgina had suggested handling the cheese. The material remembers". (page 242)
I have assurance that the material for the next person will hold the love and prayer I put into washing and folding each towel, sheet and mattress pad. The material will remember and in a way directed by God will be conveyed to the next child or adult.