I live in a county that takes pride in its wealth, high standard of education and low unemployment, and enviable standard of living. It was a lesson last evening to take part in providing dinner for 35 of its homeless women.
(For readers outside America, that's "county", not "country". America is divided into 50 states, and each state has dozens of counties).
My impression of the homeless has always been someone sleeping over a grate to keep warm, an alcoholic with mental problems trying to hit you up for some change to buy the next beer. This was not the case with these women. Some of them were professionals, college educated. I talked to a few who had migrated to America from English-speaking countries for purposes of employment. But along the way something happened. It could have been a layoff, a company closure, or a divorce. Sometimes it was a personal problem - alcohol or drug use - that began as a hobby and ended as an addiction.
One of the staff members informed me there were 30 women living there last year, and this year there are five more. If you are a single adult in America, even professional and well-educated, a layoff with not enough money to pay the mortgage can easily and quickly be followed by foreclosure and no place to live.
What I felt most keenly was the sense of shame in the women as I handed them their dessert. Some tried to cover it with bluster, "What do you mean I need to wait until everyone has eaten until I have a second serving of ice cream?" Others were unable to hold their head high or look me in the eye. Life had dealt them a hard, unexpected blow, and now they were reduced to accepting dinner from a stranger.
I know the phrase "There but for the grace of God go I" can sound like an empty cliche, but as I got in my car after dinner to drive home I realized anew that there was not that much difference between those women and me. I also understood why it's important for me to be part of a faith community. The shelter is in partnership with 52 churches in the area. Each church takes one week per year to provide meals to the women residing there, and this week it was our turn. It was an honor to participate.