I pick my way gingerly across three lanes of icy slush on a deserted Oak Street toward First Christian Church. It’s nearly ten p.m., and no one is out tonight.
No one except people seeking shelter against the cold.
I make my way to the entrance to the night shelter, around the back.
A dozen people huddle in the stairwell leading down to the basement. They wait with endless patience.
A woman with clipboard in hand calls out with authority, “Step to the right. Volunteer coming through.”
The huddled group moves as a body to the right. Volunteer makes her way quickly down the stairs and into the intake area.
I am ushered to the volunteer room, which also is the bag room, where guests’ backpacks and belongings are stored. Each item tagged, neatly shelved, all in numerical order.
At the check-in table I give my name, my phone number, and the last four digits of my Social.
“You can make a nametag,” John says.
I take the marker and write “Maria.” I put the nametag on my jacket, and slip into “street name” mode.
“Do you want to do guest intake tonight?” Dave the shift leader asks. “Or do deescalation if a situation gets tense?”
“I am really good at keeping night watch,” I say. “I’ll just sit in the sleeping room and be a peaceful presence for the guests.”
The team breaks into a spontaneous little joy dance, because no one wants to sit for six or seven hours, watching people sleep.
I fetch my water bottle, my thermos of coffee, my bag of trail mix, my folder of work projects, and the half of my well-worn Shorter Christian Prayer which long ago unhinged itself from its spine.
Guests drift in and settle down for the night on their mats. The lights go out, and the snoring begins. A mighty chorus, the sound of first deep sleep. It is the sound of the deeply tired.
Tired from lack of sleep. Tired from poor health. Tired from always having to shuffle on. Exhausted from the lack of everything I take for granted. Everything.
I imagine the vulnerability that comes with sleeping in public spaces. As I keep night watch I realize that I do not know what it means to live with constant vulnerability. And the stigma that goes with not being able to protect yourself from the cruelty or desperation of strangers.
I take a peek at my phone. The screen shows 12:23. I open my Christian Prayer to a section already marked: the Office for the Dead. I turn to Evening Prayer.
I pray the Office for the Dead tonight, not because I associate homelessness with death, although I could, but because the psalms are full of supplication, and full of trust. The kind of trust Jesus had as his life hung vulnerable and near death.
From Psalm 130 I pray these words:
My soul is waiting for the Lord;
I count on his word.
My soul is longing for the Lord,
more than watchman for daybreak …
I know this watching, and the hope that arises with the first light of dawn. It dispels the long dark night of loneliness and stirs an innate sense of possibility.
Yet for many who live under a cloud of hopelessness, the first light of dawn reawakens a cold dread.
I sit a while with these words of the Psalmist, and with these thoughts.
I pray a binding prayer, which seems right, now, as I keep night watch:
we beg you to visit this house,
and banish from it all the deadly power of the enemy.
May your holy angels dwell here,
to keep us in peace,
and may your blessing be upon us always.
“Keep us in peace,” I pray. Not “them” on their mats and “me” on this old church bench. But us.
Mary Sharon Moore writes and speaks nationwide on
the nature of God’s calling in our times.