God is the Electricity

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IVC St. Louis Volunteers, Tim & Jolene Grosch

IVC St. Louis Volunteers, Tim & Jolene Grosch. Photo by James Visser, courtesy of Saint Louis University

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”.

12 Responses to “God is the Electricity”

  1. Rosemary

    Very moving, Tim. I especially like your point about how the electricity changes the “thems” to “ours”–but, oh my! That means more hurt for you, doesn’t it. Thanks for sharing that hurt.

  2. Mary Haggerty

    Thank you, Tim. Blessings on you and Jolene and your willingness to enter in.
    Mary Haggerty

  3. Barbara Lee

    This is a heartbreaking story, and a reminder that our volunteer work carries the risk of failure, disappointment and heartbreak. Tim, your response is an inspiration to all of us who may not always see exactly the results we hope for–yet.

  4. Pat Waldschmidt

    Tim, it is heartbreaking and sad yet it’s also wonderful that you have indeed lived the words of our Lord in the Gospel of Matthew; “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

    You are walking the walk Tim and that is all that God asks.




  6. Kate Stroble

    Well said! One of the many blessings of IVC is the community in which we share our disappointments and ask the good questions.

  7. Sheila O'Malley

    Thanks for your ‘heart’felt sharing. As IVC people, we go to our agencies not to serve others so much as to be with them. The authentic and ‘electrical’ prescence that happens in the process is what I call ‘God-ing’ Blessings to you and Jolene.

  8. Josefa Elayda

    Thanks for sharing, Tim. Your caring for these young women and their families beyond your hurt gives me courage…and shows me the presence of God. Blessings.

  9. Fran Knoll

    Thanks Tim for your reflection. God’s electricity transformed you- that’s a gift!

  10. Liz McMahon

    Tim, thank you for the beautiful reflection on these new members of your extended family, so poignant. When we take the risk to plant seeds in new relationships through our service, it’s done with a leap of faith because we will often not know the outcome….and that’s where the faith comes in that allows for our own transformation… I will reflect on this story the rest of the day!

  11. Diana Gaillardetz

    Tim and Jolene, Thanks for being there to open your hearts to these young women who have undoubtably known rejection from others in their lives. By choosing to enter into their brokenness and staying there with them, your witness of God’s unfailing love and forgiveness is made real. Thanks for being true witnesses to God’s love of the vulnerable.

    • Louise M. Sandberg

      This reminds me of any time I have sabotaged my life. Maybe I didn’t believe I was worth it, or I didn’t believe I could do it perfectly, or I gave in to addiction, habit or familiarity instead of changing. I have lived and worked in shelters on Long Island, and I remember the first time I had to ask someone to leave for an infraction. I also remember a couple of weeks ago when a woman came to the place I am doing my volunteer service. She was dressed very professionally and I held the door for her. She called me by name and reminded me that she had been siving in a car with her kids until she came to our shelter, and now she is serving women in the same situation. We do make a difference, and we may never know what it is, but we are only responsible for the effort. God is responsible for the outcomes.


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