Tuesday, January 31, 2017

An evening with Seattle's Union Gospel Mission

A normal Tuesday night finds me in my home. Usually wearing my pajamas by 4 pm and supervising my kids' homework. Last Tuesday night was quite a bit different though, as I had the opportunity to visit Seattle's Union Gospel Mission and ride along in a van with UGM's president, Jeff Lilley, and some other writers as we learned about the issues of homelessness and poverty in Seattle. I've been volunteering with a homeless drop-in center close to my home for a year now, so this was not my first introduction to the issue, but it was my first time getting out at night and seeing firsthand some of the places where our homeless friends live. 

We went out in a van alongside several other vans filled with regular volunteers. These volunteers are people who give up an evening (or several evenings) on a regular basis to load up a van full of food, blankets, clothes and other supplies and head out to visit homeless encampments around the city. But they don't just drop off blankets and speed away into the night, these volunteers spend time getting to know the people they serve. They hear their stories and develop relationships. Relationships based on trust and on caring. 

As we drove up to our first stop, the first thing that I noticed was the rats. Fat, brown rats scurrying about. Lots of them. Then my eyes were drawn to the overflowing dumpsters and to the rows of tents and tarps lining up in the field in front of me. So many tents, out in the middle of the mud. I gave an involuntary shudder, both from the sight of a dead rat on the ground nearby and from the chill in the air that my winter jacket couldn't quite keep out. How could anything good be in this dismal place,  this unofficial tent city on the edge of downtown Seattle? And then, out of nowhere, I heard a squeal of excitement and watched as a young girl ran and jumped into the arms of one of the volunteers that had just gotten out of one of the other vans. Her joy at seeing her friends radiated from her face. And I smiled, because I was suddenly seeing a glimmer of light in a very dark place.  

I've learned a lot during my year of volunteering with the homeless, but the two main things I've learned are that no two people's stories are the same and that our homeless friends, just like anyone else, just want to know that their stories still matter. That their lives still matter. By visiting homeless encampments regularly, UGM's Search and Rescue missions bring that dignity and respect to people living in very difficult circumstances. I love this about UGM- as an organization they value relationships and believe that building long-term relationships with people is the best way to get them the resources that are needed. Sure, they help with immediate needs like food and shelter as well, but it's the friendships that are built that change lives. 

There is a lot of need in Seattle. Sometimes it's hard to know where to start. UGM's president had an answer for this- just figure out what you have to offer and offer it. He shared a story with us about a woman who was a talented piano player and ended up setting aside time to play the piano at a women and children's shelter. She brought music and happiness to those lives, just by sharing her talent. Helping those in need doesn't have to mean volunteering in a soup kitchen, it can take many forms. The important thing is that we find that method for ourselves and use it. 

If you feel moved to donate financial resources, UGM is a great place to donate. They are doing very important, life saving work. And if you're local and are interested in volunteering with UGM, here is a link to their volunteer page.  Or find another organization or cause to contribute to. The world is a messy place right now, so let's use our time and energy to love each other.