Every Wednesday afternoon, I drive to Room in the Inn, the homeless ministry in Florence. On my drive to the center, I am usually filled with self-doubt. I am socially awkward, and I always try to get there early enough to nab the snacks and supplies duty so that my hands and feet can stay busy enough that our guests won’t notice how awkward I really am. My thoughts on the way to the center are usually along the lines of, “I bet they don’t like me. They probably think I’m a snob because I’m so quiet. What am I doing? Why am I doing this? Surely there is someone better than me to do this work, someone more likable, someone who will bring them joy.”
When I pulled up last night, I had been thinking all these things. I saw all of our guests lined up outside the center. I got out of my car, and running toward me was one of our guests who is always smiling.
“Hello, Miss Mary Beth! You look so beautiful today!”
My heart swelled, not because of his compliment, but because I felt welcome after all those negative thoughts had been haunting me. I felt connection. I smiled widely and genuinely, the kind of smile that can only come from a surge of joy.
“Thank you, ______! How are you doing today?” I said.
“I am great! I’m glad to be here!” he said, and he stuck out his hand to shake mine.
As I walked in, I greeted everyone, and two or three others greeted me by name. For weeks, I had walked around this place in a trap of my own insecurity, and I finally felt like a part of this very special place that welcomes the hurting, the struggling, the abandoned, in short, the most vulnerable of our society.
The night was loud and boisterous. People were laughing, playing games, sharing bowls of popcorn and other snacks, and sipping steaming cups of coffee and hot chocolate. We hung up some new Christmas decorations that had been donated. The same friend who had greeted me earlier was now excited about the decorations and pulled out some paper and began making snowflakes like the ones I remembered doing in elementary school. We didn’t have scissors, so he was tearing out pieces with his fingers. Every time he opened a new one, he let out a sort of “Woo hoo!” “Look at this!” he’d say, “Who wants to make more snowflakes? Let’s make more!”
Another volunteer and I finally grabbed some paper and started folding with him. He was so excited about this activity that I had not done since the fourth grade. It was infectious. Soon others joined in, and he would make a ceremony out of the opening of the finished snowflakes, saying things like, “Wow! That one is really beautiful!” It was literally torn paper snowflakes, with jagged edges and odd shapes. But he couldn’t contain his joy.
We hung our snowflakes around the room, and he knew exactly which ones were made by whom. He would brag on each one, and people would smile, and some wanted to make their own.
* * *
Making snowflakes last night was a simple moment in time. Nobody was saving the world or solving homelessness. My friend will still be homeless tomorrow, and he will be suffering and cold during the days that come. He suffers more than any human should. The reality of what these guests go through on a daily basis is unimaginable, and some days, it can be overwhelming to think about.
I have never wandered the streets homeless, but I have come near drowning in the depths of depression. I have gone to sleep wishing there would be no tomorrow. What is important to realize, however, is that these places in us that have been carved out by sorrow are ripe for empathy. They seek kindred spirits, souls that have also experienced suffering, whether physical, mental, spiritual or all of the above. When these souls meet, we see the other’s resilience and strength where we could not see our own.
Paper snowflakes won’t solve homelessness. They won’t keep me from falling into depression next month or a year from now. But the memory of laughing over silly shapes, smiling and feeling like we belong to this beautiful tribe of humanity, even for just a moment, these are joys that will remind us how it feels to be alive and connected. These are the moments that lift the often very heavy soul. These are the moments that connect us to each other… a light in the darkness. These are moments of joy.
-Mary Beth Willis
Mary Beth Willis is an ESL instructor at the University of North Alabama. She grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi but now calls Florence home. She travels to Desab, Haiti twice a year with UNA Alternative Breaks as a faculty leader for an ongoing sustainability and community development project. She loves working with international students, an interest she developed while traveling and teaching abroad after college. However, working in Haiti and helping to develop sustainable solutions to extreme poverty is what she considers her life’s work and passion. She has worked in Honduras as a missionary and in China and South Africa as an English teacher. She has also traveled through Ecuador and Thailand. She has an M.A. in Modern Languages from University of Mississippi and a B.A. In Communication from College of Charleston.