Last November, the pups and I were living on a seventy acre farm called RockARosa, in Adams, TN while my house in East Nashville was on the market. We loved it – four ponds, cows, calves and coyote right outside our door. It was a safe haven – a writer’s dream – and I still can’t believe how lucky I was to get to stay there while everything was turned upside down back in East Nasty. While my little house was getting a new roof, we were prowling around in the old graveyard on the property and running from hawks. I’d go into town to work on the house, but return to the quiet farmhouse and write.
But something else happened while I was there that I’ll be forever grateful for. My seventh grade science teacher, Nita Heilman, reached out to me on FaceBook and asked if I’d like to volunteer at St. Bethlehem at Room in the Inn. I jumped at the chance.
Years ago, I volunteered with a doctor I worked with and his wife at Green St. Church of Christ one night a month, cooking dinner for the homeless. I loved it. I was expecting the same kind of thing. At Green St., we served the food we cooked for the guests, then cleaned up the kitchen and dining room afterwards. Not much interaction with the people we served, because we were so busy, but I would talk as much as I could while they came down the line, make jokes and try to get a few smiles. At first, Vernat was worried that I might make them uncomfortable – there wasn’t a lot of talking in the line before I came – but he realized that everyone smiled a little bit more and let me be me.
When I got to St. B’s, a half hour early, I was ready to get to work, but there was nothing to do. The meal had already been prepared and was keeping warm in a big piece of equipment that looked like a stand up freezer. I was itching to do something – so Nita put me to work setting up a table with gloves, scarves and other warm clothes that had been donated and hanging coats on racks for the guests to choose from later.
“I think you will be best suited in the main room,” Nita told me, grinning. “Just be yourself and listen. Somebody might need someone to talk to.”
When it was time for dinner, Nita called me in with the guests for grace, then handed me a plate. So different from my other volunteer gig. I walked through the line and received a plate full of hot, home-cooked food, then sat at a table with the guests in the dining room that had been playing a serious game of cards earlier.
“So, what were y’all playing?” I asked.
“Bullshit.” the man said, more like whispered – barely moving his mouth – and grinned. He looked like a mischievous kid swearing in church.
I laughed out loud. “Can I play?”
That’s all it took. After dinner, the table grew from three quiet players to six laughing ones. Every time a new person came into the mix and the game was explained we giggled. Bullshit was always whispered until I shortened it to Bull. Something about playing a card game where you lie to win inside of the church was hilarious. It brought out the best in everybody.
Even from Jeff, who refused my first two attempts to get him to play. “I ain’t a liar. And this is a church.” But before it was over, Jeff was winning. Lying with the best of us.
The next time I came, I brought a pan of brownies and was ready to deal the cards. People opened up to me and told me their stories. Every one there was either looking for a job, or working. Trying to get the money saved for a place of their own. As I listened, I realized how close we all are to being in the same situation.
And, how much alike we are. One guy had asked me a few questions – like if there was an extra blanket, or what time was the wake up call. When I said I didn’t know, but I could find out, he looked at me, puzzled, and asked, “Hey, wait a minute. Or you on that side or this side?” I loved it.
After everyone told me their story, they asked me mine. I was embarrassed to tell them that I’d quit a good job and sold my house – choosing to be jobless to live a dream, but I did. That night when it was time to leave, I got hugs from everybody and a pep talk. How wonderful that the people I was supposed to be lifting up, were the ones that did the lifting. Not one person there judged me.
After that, people greeted me as soon as I came through the door. Always making a big fuss over the brownies and making me feel like a million bucks. For the next few hours at every visit, I played and laughed and met so many great people. I couldn’t believe that was the “job” Nita asked me to do.
I met Brenda, the sweetest, sassiest lady you’d ever want to meet. She was a nervous wreck – I could feel her anxiety across the room. I couldn’t talk her into playing cards the first night, but after another attempt the following visit, she gave in and played. I’m so glad she did. Within minutes she was laughing and cutting up with everybody. Her story is proof of how strong we can be when we have to be. She never thought she would end up homeless, but believes that everything happens for a reason. We’ve kept in touch and the last time I talked to her she has her own apartment, a job, and had been asked to help mentor other people going through the same situation – and to talk to people who aren’t – to help them understand.
I spent the holidays at St. B’s – Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Thanks to Nita and the sweet guests there, I had the best Christmas I’ve had in years.
When it was time for me to leave to come to Florida they gave me a great send off. A warm meal with friends, a delicious cake decorated with blue roses – my favorite color – and so many hugs I can still feel them. But the most important thing I took with me was the best gift ever.
I left Nashville feeling loved.