I received a gift last Sunday morning. It didn’t sport bright paper or a pretty bow. I didn’t get to shake it while the giver waited for me to guess what was inside.
The gift, freely given, was a big smile and a heart-felt thank you from someone I’d just served hot coffee and warm bread to, someone I’d just met, someone who, thanks to the big hearts and open minds of many in Olympia, had a warm place to be on our recent frigid winter days.
In my faith tradition, we are in Advent, those dark winter days when we are waiting for light to come. That light, in the Christian tradition, is the birth of Jesus to homeless parents on a cold winter’s day in humble circumstances — not a hospital, or birthing room, but a simple shelter where they could be warm and safe.
In recent months, our community has had a lot of discussion about shelter for those wishing for that same warmth and safety who are wary of, or not welcome in, our current system. The questions are many: Where should such a shelter be? Who should be allowed to stay there? Will it serve the mentally ill, sex offenders and felons? What will the effect be on places and neighborhoods near to a shelter if “those people” are allowed to live there?
I acknowledge the fears and concerns I have heard, but I keep coming back to some very basic questions: If no welcoming place is offered to those who are underserved, or not served at all by our shelter system, what happens to them? How do we work through our apprehensions? How can this big-hearted community reach consensus on serving those who have some really difficult needs?
Saturday’s Homeless Connect event at The Olympia Center was an incredible first step in demonstrating what a low-barrier shelter, such as the proposed People’s House, might look like. Everyone who came could get a haircut, medical care, three meals, hot coffee, tea and cocoa, listen to music, be connected to resources, and sleep in a safe place without fear of frostbite. People who needed coats and blankets got them. Dogs that needed coats and food could get them, too, thanks to Covenant Critters.
Setting up a permanent shelter that offers these services — most importantly mental health resources and protection from the whims of weather — is the gift our community can give. We can learn together to accept people where they are, believe in their dignity, and turn on the light for those who live in darkness.
Without that light, the path is dim. Working together, we can turn it on.Mindy Chambers is an Interfaith Works board member and a member of St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church. Pastor Perspective is coordinated by Interfaith Works and is the opinion of the author.