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“Warming Center Puts Life in Perspective"

Shelley L. Houston
Fourth Prize - $3,000

Shelley L. Houston is an Oregon author/publisher with articles published in magazines such as Today’s Christian Woman, Christian Courier, Senior Life, Seek, Look Out, Devotions, and Quiet Hour. Most recently she published a novel, Julia, Coming Home and a children’s chapter book, Allister.  Houston graduated with academic honors from Corban University and has worked as a high school teacher and the executive director of a Christian college. She now serves as president and lead editor of Just Dust Publishers, a Christian “Indie” publishing company in Eugene, Oregon.


It was a bad night. I frequently have trouble sleeping, but when my alarm went off at 5:00 a.m., I viewed my couple hours’ sleep with contempt. I forced a smile at my husband, who scurried past me to dress for our morning task—the Egan Warming Center. We were due at 5:30 to relieve the night crew.

 

Why did I agree to this? I brushed my teeth, washed my face, swiped a comb through my hair, and blinked at my reflection. Perhaps no one would recognize me…

 

As I lumbered out the door, the cold slapped me fully conscious. I then thought, some of the one thousand homeless people in our county probably slept outside last night. Maybe they shivered, even now, under some bridge. 

 

The church windows glowed as I pulled into the parking lot. There, some of our “customers” stood with their cigarette smoke evaporating into the darkness. I nodded to them as I walked by, which a few returned.  One man glanced my way but looked too weary to nod. 

 

As I entered the church, the smell of hopelessness offended my senses. I greeted fellow workers but I staggered under the feeling of desolation that so many homeless people experience. Then, inexplicably, a fire to survive surged through me. I wanted to overflow with love—God’s love, which I so often take for granted.

 

I handed out plastic bags in which people stored their bedding. “Good morning! How’d you sleep? Would you like a bus pass? Yes, there’s dry socks for you. Now, get a good breakfast.” I managed smiles of comfort and words of encouragement.

 

I had difficulty maintaining that character as all ninety people filed by, some with frostbitten faces, rashes or scrapes. One man burned with fever.

 

I greeted the next young man in line, “Good morning, James.”

 

His eyes searched mine as he took the bus pass. He had something to say. I waited. His hands fussed with his jacket. His mouth opened, but his voice broke. I smiled, encouragingly. “Would you like some socks?”

 

He shook his head. “Just—thank you.”  He fidgeted a little more and started to turn away but then he found the words and turned back. “It means so much for you to do this. Thank you.” Tears welled in his eyes.

 

Shame flooded through me as I recalled my grumbling that morning and my distaste as I arrived.

 

I shook my head. “No,” I said. “Thank you. It’s a blessing to be here.”

 

I reflect on what Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you invited me in…”

 

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you?…’”

 

“The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me’.”

 

Printed March 12, 2011;  The Register-Guard;  Eugene, OR.

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