Reflection by Toni Voorhies, a founding host of Union’s Shelter. Learn more about the shelter on our website or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have always thought of God as a creative Spirit, but I had not used the word 'imaginative' before. So when Kierstin asked me how I see God's imaginative Spirit present at the Union Women's Shelter I was stumped. After some contemplation, I thought that if imagination is the capacity to visualize a reality that contradicts our experience, then obviously the Spirit is imaginative. When I applied this idea to the Shelter, I decided that God has a massive imagination.
I joined up with a group at Union who wanted to invite homeless women into our building a couple times a month to spend the night - to create a volunteer shelter for homeless women. We believed that God was calling us to share our space, and I thought it was a chance for me to do more than just despair about the issue of homelessness in our city. As we discussed the questions of how and when, I looked around at our space and the equipment we had been given. I saw a hard concrete floor, an imposing cavernous room, 14 small, hard mattresses, very worn linens, plastic bins, an industrial kitchen and a clean but basic bathroom. It didn't feel welcoming or homey. I thought the best we could hope to provide was a dry space, a bed (kinda) and some food. But, it was what it was and it was all we had to offer. Our partner from Noel House assured us it would be enough, more than enough. I convinced myself that offering a dry space and a mattress was enough for women who would otherwise be on the street. So I joined in enthusiastically with the team, and we began to host women overnight. We were trepidatious, to say the least, but I could actually hear God whispering, "come along. You got this. Just go with it."
That was over five years ago. As a team of volunteers, we have leaned into the space and the evenings together with the homeless women. I try to serve at least once a month by spending the night, and I often volunteer to serve a meal.
Our guests arrive in the evening after having spent the day looking for a safe place to hang out, keeping track of their stuff, trying to work out necessities like food, hygiene and medical concerns, looking for helpful resources, sometimes working, all the while knowing they are not welcome in public spaces. They are ignored, looked down on, or worse by people who encounter them. Repeat guests enter our space and visibly relax. They tell me they are happy to be at Union because they feel safe and welcome. They say we treat them like 'real people' and that the space is so quiet and peaceful. They love our meals which are home cooked and full of flavor and vegetables. They LOVE our ice cream for dessert. They like being greeted and welcomed, instead of ostracized and ignored. They like sitting around a table eating with a community that cares about them, or resting quietly on their mattresses, or sorting safely through their things. When a woman comes to us for the first time, it usually only takes an hour before she asks me hopefully, "are you guys open tomorrow night, too?", because she senses something different about coming in from the cold world to our warm welcoming space.
The thing that is strange, and wonderful, is that when I walk into Union on Shelter nights, I no longer see a hard, cavernous space. I know that I am going to experience warmth, conversation, laughter, peace, companionship, and good food. Something I could not imagine has been created, not just for the homeless women, but for me, too. God could imagine the community and warmth of our space from the beginning. He knew that the reality of our shelter would be formed not from the concrete and the mattresses, but from the relationships that would be forged. It might sound crazy, but our building feels the most like a sanctuary to me on the Monday nights when I stay there with the homeless women. God's imaginative Spirit could see a warm, safe refuge and he called me to come and be part of creating something that I could not visualize on my own. Imagine that. He wanted me to experience the joy of creating sanctuary for others, and to have an experience of being in a sanctuary space.
I still often feel despair over homelessness in our city. I have learned a lot about homeless women, but God hasn't given me the answers to homelessness. God has taught me the power of sanctuary and given me a longing to experience more of his imagination.