For the past year and a half, my wife and I have been assigned to work in a shelter for homeless, pregnant young women. And one thing we have discovered is that there are no easy answers, there are no simple explanations, and judgments and labels are meaningless.
In the past month, this discovery has again hit us. Two of the young women at the shelter gave birth over the holidays. Both of them already have older, pre-school children that are absolutely wonderful – full of life and curiosity and promise. The children were showered with attention and affection from the staff, volunteers and the other mothers, and the older ones were thriving at a local pre-school. The staff was working with both women to help them deal with disabilities, find jobs and continue their educations. But that has all come to an end.
The shelter’s mission is not just to provide a safe, stable environment in order to ensure healthy deliveries, but also to help the women advance towards self-reliance, with a focus on parenting skills, spiritual values, education, and employment. Unfortunately, these two young women were both required to leave the shelter – one for refusing to return to a GED program, the other for a serious infraction of a critical shelter rule. As a result, they left a warm, caring home, with tremendous supports in place, and they have reentered a world of couch surfing and abusive boyfriends and instability and chaos. Worse yet, they have drug their beautiful children with them. In their world of very few opportunities, these young women walked away from a real chance to make a stable life for themselves and their kids. I find myself saddened and angry and worried at their choices – choices that can easily be described as thoughtless and irresponsible and selfish and wrong. But I can’t dismiss them, or explain them with a smug answer, and I especially can’t condemn them.
Maybe we all go through life carefully distinguishing between “us” and “them” – whether the distinctions are on the basis of gender or creed or race or class or life choices or whatever – and then we proceed to make assumptions about the “thems”, followed quickly by judgments, which are then followed by tall, strong, impenetrable barricades that always keep their “otherness” in place. With more than a bit of shame, I have to admit that I have my share of barricades. But what I have discovered in my work at the shelter is that as you get to know the “others” on a close, one to one basis, something happens. As Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher wrote, “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.” That electricity dissolves the barricades, erases the distinctions, and makes the judgments meaningless. Instead of separation, there is recognition of each other’s uniqueness, appreciation for each other’s gifts, and a real joy in being together.
My wife and I got to know the two young women that left in that way. We drove them on errands and found out, bit by bit, about their lives before the shelter. We talked about parenting and finances and their plans for the future. We praised their kids and laughed with them about their antics. We grew to like them and care about them, and I hope that they liked us as well. And God must have done His surging electricity thing, because those two young women were no longer “them” – they were “ours”. Whether or not they changed because of anything we said or anything we did, the fact is that we changed because we knew them, and our family grew bigger because somehow or other they became a part of it. And I hope that God is happy as well, because maybe in a very small way, we were able to see in these ladies what He sees in them.
So now that they have gone, I am deeply saddened and angry about what they’ve done, and I am very worried about the future that their wonderful children will face. But I don’t want to condemn them, or sneer “I’m not surprised”, or explain their failings by reference to their upbringing, or their culture, or their attitudes – reactions that may be justified and would certainly be appropriate for “thems”. No, I don’t want to, because they aren’t “thems” anymore. God’s electricity turned them, presto chango, into “ours”, and I don’t want them to lose that status. So I’ll continue to hold them as my family, and remember them, and worry about them, and, most importantly, entrust them to our shared Father, who has always called them “mine”.