Rob and Ruth asked if we’d like houseplants they can’t move to their new home. “Sure!” I responded. Ruth, with a green thumb and a love for gardening, has a gazillion plants in her home.
While Rob fixed us Saturday brunch, the rest of us walked from room to room, choosing plant after plant for the brand new homeless shelter my husband manages, Compass at First Presbyterian Church of Seattle*. We loaded 7-foot palms, Christmas cacti in bloom, weeping begonias and Aspidstra; plus tables and artwork, African masks, Peruvian baskets, and two bags of clothing into our pick-up. The stark white, newly renovated rooms of the shelter need softening. These would make a good start.
Of the four of us, only Mark realized how much this would mean to the shelter guests.
When we arrived at the shelter, guests emptied the truck in minutes. One guest with a horticultural degree called each plant by its botanical name as it came in the door. Another was reminded of the Christmas cacti that filled the deck of her childhood home in California. A man whose calligraphy decorates the dining area brainstormed where to hang a large, colorful Picasso. Yet another removed a safari shirt from a bag and, beaming, told me, “This is my Christmas present.”
As we drove home, we were a stew of conflicting feelings: joy, humility, and gratitude, horror and rage. We wiped silent tears and blew our noses. We were lost for words. How does one speak of the unabashed joy and gratitude we encountered as we delivered what seemed to us like mere plants? How does one not feel humbled by the guests’ appreciation for the beauty such seemingly small things bring? How does one articulate awe at the joy of such folk as they decorate a warm, safe, hope-filled shelter for themselves and future guests? And how does are society justify throwing away people when they or their circumstances become difficult?
The next morning, we brought a second load of plants. It was like walking straight into a geyser of joy, gratitude, and pride. Guests showed us plants from the day before which they had trimmed and watered as beautifully as if they were in an expensive nursery and which made the rooms softer and more human. The shelter was full of hardship, resilience, joy and community.
Mark and I headed upstairs for worship. The scripture read and discussed was a fitting close to Thanksgiving weekend and the beginning of our preparations for Christmas. As you proceed through the month of December, I pray it will stay with you as it has with me. Even the small can be huge in impact.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Matthew 25:31-40
*The newest shelter in Seattle, Compass at First Presbyterian, provides a safe temporary home 24/7 for 80 men and 20 women from homeless encampments in Seattle. Staff works intensively to locate permanent housing in 60 days, assembling documents such as photo IDs and birth certificates and helping with employment, medical and psychological care as needed. King County has the third largest concentration homeless in the U.S. behind New York and Los Angeles, 11,643.