At Home with the Homeless
Congregation Shaare Emeth, St. Louis.
God is always asking us to serve. In the Torah portion Tzav (Hebrew for “command”), God offers deliberate and precise instructions, too. When God directs the priests, Aaron and his sons, to bring the burnt offering, the meal offering, the sin offering, and the peace offering to the altar, God also tells them what to wear, where to perform the sacrifices, what offerings to eat and not eat, and what to do with the blood from the offerings (Leviticus 6:1–8:36).
What strikes me most about this Torah portion is that nobody says, “Hey, wait a minute, why can’t I do it a different way?”
The priests don’t protest having to wear a long robe and breastplate in the heat, or having to sprinkle blood or carry heavy animals. They just do what God asks, willingly, with pure hearts and clear intention.
I don’t know about you, but “Okay, I’ll do whatever you want just because you commanded me” is just not my tendency.
So, how do I explain that, over the last four years, I have slept dozens of nights on our synagogue floor? On the first Monday of each month, volunteers from my congregation, Shaare Emeth in St. Louis, Missouri, including my 11-year-old daughter Sarah and my 13-year-old son Max, transport homeless women and families to our synagogue, prepare dinner and dessert for them, visit, and set up a room full of air mattresses on which they and we sleep. In the morning, before sunrise, we volunteers prepare breakfast for the women and children—scramble eggs, make French toast and coffee, pour juice—then drive the women and children back to the day shelter, and rush to get our own work or school day started. It’s our family and congregation’s commitment to Room at the Inn, an organization that provides immediate, temporary shelter to homeless women and families, for which our synagogue serves as one of 60 interfaith congregational night sites around St. Louis.
I often have moments when I wish we had not committed ourselves, like those mornings when I have no time to shower or when my 45-year-old back aches from sleeping on a sinking air mattress or when I’m rushing to my teaching job or feel so wiped out I can hardly manage my energetic eighth-grade students. At these times I think about what acquaintances have said to me: “Really? You let your kids do this? And on a school night? I would never.” Or, “Really? You let your children sleep amongst strangers? Aren’t you afraid?”
Yet, like the Temple priests who showed up at the altar again and again as they were commanded to do, I too show up, taking my place on the overnight shift, the shift deemed least desirable and the hardest to fill with volunteers.
The plain fact is, my kids and I show up because women and children need us to be there. We show up because in the morning, when I am driving these women and children back to the day shelter and I glance through my rearview mirror, I’ll often see Sarah holding hands with a girl she knows not as homeless, but as human. I’ll see the girl clutching, with her other hand, a magic wand that Sarah has pulled from her closet in our little ranch home. We show up because I want my children to know that the world is filled with us, not with us and them—and just because some of us have closets bursting with Wii games and stuffed bears does not mean that we are somehow better than those of us who do not.
Sleeping on an air mattress, not showering, and imbibing extra caffeine are but small sacrifices in the face of a giant need. I try, much like it seems Aaron and his sons tried, to keep my focus clear, my perspective intact, my intention holy. I try to listen to that voice that tells me, maybe even commands me, to show up at the temple on Monday nights and give my tiny offering.
Is that voice God’s voice? I don’t know. But when the women leave my mini-van and whisper, as they often do, “God bless you; thank you so much,” I think: Maybe God has been sitting right here in the back of my Nissan Quest minivan.
Debra Solomon Baker, a member of Congregation Shaare Emeth in St. Louis, Missouri, teaches eighth-grade English and blogs about her experiences at debrasolomonbaker.wordpress.com.