The first time I volunteered at our night shelter my aspirations were selfish.
As a storyteller, I skulk around conversations like an addict waiting for my next hit of redemption. I was about to enter a war zone of the battle weary and couldn’t wait to get my pen out and listen. The opportunity wasn’t as much about helping as it was about getting a story.
But one of the rules about engaging with our guests quickly squelched any visions I had about hearing a good story. I learned I couldn’t ask personal questions.
Um, I don’t know how to do that.
And then I heard God ask me this question, “Would you serve the homeless if there was nothing in it for you?”
Like a punch in the gut, that question revealed the ugliness of my less-than-noble motives. So, I said yes and walked the familiar path to church after dark.
Exchanging my black wool coat for an apron, I stood next to a gas stove, every burner flaming under cast iron pots filled with chicken. Initially, I felt as if I were the only stranger invited to a dinner party of family members.
Awkward, hesitant, and out of my comfort zone, I watched four Ethiopian women move around each other as if they were dancing to a familiar song, inaudible to the rest of us. Wiping counters, filling tea pots, procuring knives and cutting boards, their work had rhythm and joy to it. They knew what needed doing because they had practiced working together often.
I attempted to find my groove by asking how I could help. Cutting onions was my first assignment.
Standing across from Bella over a giant stainless steel island, we sliced a giant bag of onions together as if our lives depended upon it. Pulling a tissue up to her eyes, she dabbed tears from her cheeks every time she looked up to answer one of my questions. Her gentle, kind demeanor brought sweetness to those pungent fumes.
“This is my favorite place to come,” remarked one of the guests waiting across the counter for me to scoop a second helping of creamy dessert into his bowl. “The people are so nice here and food is always good.”
The next week I peeled potatoes.
Before I found a peeler and apron, someone in the kitchen called out to me, “Your Shelly! I belong to the Sabbath Society and I love your emails.” I was dumbfounded. I wasn’t a stranger invading weekly dinner parties after all.
She explained how a friend introduced her to the Sabbath Society community and how that same person led her to faith.
It turns out the stories I was hoping for weren’t coming from the homeless guests but the people who serve unselfishly with joy behind the scenes. I listened to sobering stories of escape from a violent birthplace and humorous tales of raising children as a single parent. Winsome stories of first love blooming between a man and woman who now navigate sickness that comes with aging.
More than our yes, God wants our heart. We can serve the hungry because we think we should and yet remain stuck, looking for the Kingdom to come in the miraculous, sensational and grandiose.
Can I tell you something? Most of the time the Kingdom is staring back at me – on the bus, in the underground, and over onions in the kitchen.
God changed my story by allowing me to remember what if feels like to be small, overlooked; the awkward stranger trying to assess whether she belongs. Because when we let go of how we think God is going to use us, we come as who we are, not what we do.
It is in the posture of vulnerability that we see Him staring back all shiny and glorious, a giant smile of love beaming on his face.
We become exceptional at ordinary things when we know the Kingdom is near. In Christ, our lives are like a dance that flows with ease; a dance that tells the story of redemption and invites others in.
How is God changing your story lately?