It was a hectic night on Christmas Eve at Central Night Shelter. We had a wonderful Jewish congregation spending the night on both sides of the Shelter. They have done this for us for several years, knowing this was a difficult night for us to find volunteers. They had to divvy themselves up and decide who was going to stay where. We also have this extraordinary family who solicits, organizes, and provides gifts for each of our Shelter guests. Bill H. is a force of nature! Each of our one hundred plus guests receives a tote bag stuffed with goodies—toiletries, flannel shirts, socks, gloves, and hats. These all had to be organized by size and divided up between the two Shelters that evening. This was all in addition to the normal busy chaos of housing and feeding a hundred men!
Luckily, our daughter, Jessie, and her husband, Cathal, came to help while Mark took my mother, who was visiting from Idaho, home from Christmas Eve Mass. The overnight volunteers got themselves sorted to the two sides of the Shelter. Bill H. and his family got all the gifts down from the storeroom and divided the gifts and themselves to do the distribution between the two sides. With everything in place, I decided to open the doors a little early to get folks inside out of the cold. Cathal went over to the Shrine side to let in the guests there while I did the door at Central. It was busy at the door over at Central as we had both the guests coming in for admittance to the Shelter and congregants of Central Presbyterian arriving for services but everyone stayed in good humor and it finally came down to the last of the men coming in for the night.
A man stepped forward at the end with his ID, stating his name. I looked but he was not on the previous night’s list. I told him that since he had not been in last night he would have to get a referral to get back into the Shelter. This is standard operating procedure and is explained to each of our guests when they are referred to us. I recognized this guest from the Sunday night prior as he had an issue that night as well. I made an exception and let him in, thinking at the time that it was probably a mistake. I was stern with him on Sunday and went over the rules again, telling him that there would not be another second chance. Now, here he was again, trying to talk his way past me with a story of a medical emergency and a trip to Grady Hospital. I asked to see his discharge papers from Grady, knowing that he most likely could not
produce them. He became belligerent and loud and insistent. I asked him to leave the property and told him he would not be allowed to come into the Shelter. Of course, this is taking place while members of Central are trying to come in for Christmas Eve services so I was more than ready for this guy to move on. Suffice it to say that he indulged in ugly name-calling, verbal abuse, and accusations of racism before finally leaving the property. This kind of episode is fairly rare but never pleasant. Several of the guests were still downstairs waiting for the elevator and witnessed the encounter. They were very upset about it and kept asking me if I was all right. I assured them I was fine but I don’t think they believed me because as soon as they got upstairs they sent down some guys from the Clean Up Crew to check on me.
Finally, we closed the doors and went upstairs. I introduced the overnight volunteers, the food crew, and the Trainer. I asked the Jewish volunteers if they would say a Hebrew blessing for our Christmas Eve dinner. They readily obliged and laughed when someone said “Hats off, Gentlemen!” They explained that in the Jewish tradition they keep their heads covered for prayer so the guys happily kept their caps on. The meal was served and I got ready to go check on the other side of the Shelter. A man who had been downstairs with me during the incident approached me with his arm outstretched to embrace my shoulders. He put his arm around me and murmured, “You were so brave.” His other arm came from behind his back holding a doll. “This is for you, Katie.” I asked him if he was sure and he said yes, that he wanted me to have it. I thanked him and hugged him again.
On the way to our cars after we had wished everyone well and left for the evening, Jessie realized I did not understand the significance of the doll. She explained that it was the main character from an animated movie called “Brave”. To give this gift exchange even more context I need to explain that the guest who gave it to me is African-American and gay. Homophobia pervades our culture but it can be vicious on the street so if there were ever anyone who needed a “Brave” talisman it would be this man. Yet, he had given it to me, the white woman going home to her comfortable home and loving family. I remain humbled by his generosity and caring spirit. I have kept the doll in our living room where I see it all the time so that I will be mindful of bravery in its many forms. The bravery of our guests as they put one foot in front of the other while enduring the harsh realities of the street, their courage as they face a future that is uncertain at best, their steadfast hopes for a better life, their gratitude and faith for what they do have—all of these serve as models of bravery for me. I will hold my talisman close in my heart along with these men who teach me so much about living a life of service and gratitude.