They are no different than us. They’ve just come upon hard times. Amy chose to come to the South Oakland Shelter (SOS) because it was safer for her and her children in the shelter than at home with an abusive husband. Tom had been a successful insurance agent, but the bottom dropped out during the recession, and he has not been able to recover. Walter and Deirdre are professionals whose jobs and marriages both unraveled simultaneously. Walter spent his first night ever in a shelter last week, and Deirdre says that she has three goals during her time at SOS: find a job, secure housing, and fix her car.
Tim worked for thirty years in the computer industry. He said his brothers swindled him out of a lot of money, and he lost everything, including his car. Tim is reading Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native at the dinner table. He says that everyone at SOS is given two bus tickets a week, but it’s difficult to seek a job or housing without daily transportation. In addition, Tim has an open wound in his leg from an incident in another shelter, and he can’t walk very far. Unlike many of the guests at SOS, Tim is not on disability, so he has no income at all.
What does God expect when the SOS goes out? We put our faith into action. SOS is the international Morse code distress signal, but it is also the universal call for help. The South Oakland Shelter (SOS) has been in operation for twenty-eight years and currently rotates between forty-seven churches and five synagogues. Fifty-two faith communities make a yearly commitment to house homeless men, women and children a week at a time as an act of hospitality, faith and hope.
It doesn’t take too long to realize that there is no one picture of a homeless person. Kathy, who has led the congregation’s SOS ministry for all twenty-eight years, says, “Some folks take a left turn and others take a right turn. I was lucky and was born into a good family. Many of our guests have family who can’t or won’t help when they’re in trouble, their marriage breaks up, or they lose their job. There isn’t much difference between them and me. Our guests could be your cousin, child or parent who caught a bad break.”
What does God expect when the SOS goes out? We put our faith into action. Church hosts commit to providing a warm and safe place to sleep, three meals a day, and lots of love. During the day, guests are required to leave the host site. Some go to part-time jobs, use the Internet at the library, look for work or housing or simply walk the streets. SOS provides assistance, but as Deirdre says, “SOS offers resources, but they require us to make the calls. It’s our responsibility. It’s one step forward and two steps backward. But soon it becomes two steps forward and one step backward. The only way is up.”
Dinner consists of homemade barbeque pulled pork and chicken, potato salad, a vegetable salad and brownie sundaes. The cooks are intentionally serving healthy food this week. Fresh fruit and vegetables abound. They ask me to try a kale smoothie, but I’m distracted by conversation. After dinner, some people stay for bingo or walk the track in the Christian Life Center.
What does God expect when the SOS goes out? We put our faith into action. One of the volunteers says to the group, “If you haven’t had time yet to sign up, I’m a chiropractor and will be glad to give you an adjustment this evening.” I wasn’t even aware that Heather is a chiropractor. To offer treatments is an amazing gesture of concern for the health and wholeness of our guests, who sleep on less than superior quality beds at different places every week and inevitably have their share of aches and pains.
I go upstairs and find Heather, whose husband and two young daughters are also volunteering. I ask how she came up with the idea of offering chiropractic adjustments to guests. She says, “I was searching for a way to give back. There are a lot of skills I don’t have, but I can offer this expertise. Many people cannot afford chiropractic care, especially if they are homeless. I always ask about their health history, and everyone is so appreciative. There is often a stigma about people who are homeless, so this treatment offers them dignity.”
Joe comes for an adjustment and says that he has a bulging, herniated and degenerative disc. Heather listens closely and then tells Joe what she can do to help him. She mentions that a few years ago she helped a woman at SOS. The woman was eventually able to find a job and get her life together. Two years later she made an appointment with Heather for an adjustment. She never forgot Heather’s generosity. Heather says, “Often we say about our professions, ‘It’s just a job,’ but any job can be used to help other people.”
What does God expect when the SOS goes out? We put our faith into action. One of the new programs of the South Oakland Shelter is aftercare. It’s now the largest part of what they do. Keeping track of those who exit the program (ninety days is the maximum amount of time for anyone to stay in the shelter) has proven to be a significant gesture of care and a blessing to former guests.
On Wednesday our congregation hosts a day at the zoo for one hundred current guests and aftercare guests and their families. Former guests may have housing and a job, but most do not have discretionary income for the zoo. We use the church bus, pay for the discounted entrance fees and provide donated food.
The connections and resources that local churches have contribute to the effectiveness of SOS. A contact with Weight Watchers results in the gift of new red blankets for each family to sit on for the picnic and evening concert at the zoo. Interaction between current and former guests enables people to connect and encourage one other.
One night I meet Early, who was a guest last summer in SOS and returned to volunteer and give back. When she was in her early twenties, Early saw her mother die of a heart attack. Early, who was raised in the church, prayed, “Jesus, help me,” and she distinctly heard God say to her, “I honor the love you shared with you mother. Now you give back.” Even in hard times, Early never forgot those words.
What does God expect when the SOS goes out? We put our faith into action. Early came to SOS when she was taking college classes but had no money for an apartment. Because of the hope and love she found at SOS, Early found a job a week later and is now self-sufficient. She says, “God gives you kindness and compassion through other people so you can give it back.” Early returns to SOS as a volunteer/evangelist and hands out inspirational quotes to people in the shelter, encouraging them to take one day at a time and trust God.
I ask Kathy and Page why they return back every year to lead the volunteers, and Kathy says, “You come to love the guests. They are so courageous. A man left this morning because he got a job in North Carolina. He has been completely estranged from his family because of a substance abuse addiction. He is sober now and said to Kathy, “Do you have any idea how much SOS means to me? You are a bridge to the world for me. You make me feel good, and because of that I can feel good about myself.” Kathy was making fruit smoothies for the guests at 11:30 p.m.
Page says, “We recruit people to help every year, but not everyone feels comfortable interacting with people who are homeless. Sometimes it takes years before a person will come by our table in Fellowship Hall and say, ‘I think I’d like to help.’ I say, ‘You can just drop a dish off at the church and leave.’ The next year they want to do more, and soon they’re hooked.”
On Friday we eat outside on the lawn with grilled brats and hamburgers. Guests and volunteers; children, teens, and adults; single people and families; people of various ethnicities and religions. Everyone is enjoying great food and good company. There is laughter, conversation and smiles. For a moment we lay aside all fears, worries and anxiety and experience a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Thou preparest a table before us. Our cup runneth over. We are all one in Christ Jesus.
“How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:17) What does God expect when the SOS goes out? Any church, no matter how large or small, can find a way to put their faith into action, knowing that we will always receive far more than we will give.