With nowhere else to sleep and the hunger pangs in my stomach increasing in intensity, I approached the door of the Rescue Mission with fear and trembling. I didn’t want to spend the night exposed to the elements in Elmwood Park, but I didn’t want to sleep at the Rescue Mission either. I’d heard stories about violence, drug use, and other frightening behavior at the Mission. Even so, a meal, shower, and bed were better than the alternatives. After pausing to say a quick prayer, I opened the Rescue Mission’s door and entered a room crowded with other men upon whose faces were expressions ranging from frustration, to drone-like stupefaction, to (in my case) deer in headlamps.
Of course, I’m not homeless. My options weren’t truly the Rescue Mission or Elmwood Park. I could’ve simply walked back over the Elm Avenue overpass to St. John’s and driven my car home. But I was participating in the Rescue Mission’s “My pastor slept here” program, in which local clergy check into the Mission anonymously as though they’re homeless and go through an entire twelve-hour overnight cycle as a Mission client.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I didn’t go alone. Three fellow parishioners went with me, each posing as a homeless man. Even so, we did not huddle together. We attempted to preserve the illusion that we were, indeed, homeless and had nowhere else to go.
First we experienced in-take. Each first-time Mission client must meet with a staffer to answer a litany of questions about job history, residency, and family status, as well as inquiries about mental and emotional health. Then we and the other 140 men seeking shelter that night sat in rows of plastic chairs and waited to be called to the dining hall for supper. After supper, we attended mandatory chapel, which included a rousing sermon on redemption. After chapel every client is required to shower. Finally, the bunk beds in the large, meandering men’s shelter are divvied up by a lottery system, and everyone goes to sleep.
Except, of course, for me there was no “finally.” I did not slumber peacefully as soon as my head hit the pillow. The sounds made by 140 men bunking in the same room are cacophonous. All night, I drifted between furtive sleep and alert anxiety. I prayed a lot: For the Mission’s chronic clients; for my three friends sleeping (or not sleeping) across the room, who cared enough about me to be fellow travelers in this experience; in repentance for my own preconceived notions about who is homeless and what renders him so.
The next morning my three friends and I left the Mission, walked over the Elm Avenue overpass to St. John’s, and returned to our South Roanoke and Raleigh Court homes. But I carried a bit of the Mission with me, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to let it go. I also learned some important things:
- The homeless don’t always look homeless. I am accustomed to the homeless who most often seek assistance from St. John’s. Often these men and women are in tattered clothing. They sometimes bear the malodorous combination of sweat and alcohol. But many of the clients at the Mission were as well-dressed as my friends and me who were pretending to belong. Some were even fastidious about their clothing (which the Mission offers to launder daily). One man woke up and put on pressed khakis and a blue blazer.
- Many of the homeless are actively striving to remedy their condition. At 4 a.m., several dozen men got out of bed and began getting dressed for the day. Confused (since wake-up is not until 5 a.m.), I asked a staff person what was going on. “They’re getting ready for work,” he replied matter-of-factly, as the cohort prepared to leave the Mission for jobs across the city.
- No one goes hungry at the Rescue Mission. My plate was piled high with smothered hamburger steak, corn, fruit and rolls. One could easily consume 2000 calories at supper alone, not to mention breakfast and lunch (both of which the Mission serves).
- The Rescue Mission is clean, and it is safe. There was no violence—indeed, there was barely a harsh word—and while there was likely clandestine drug use somewhere, it was surely not in the open. Every bed includes a handmade, colorful quilt as a subtle reminder to each resident that he is a unique and beloved child of God, not a statistic to be tallied or a problem to be solved.
- The Mission is an abiding blessing to the Roanoke Valley. I already knew this, but what was “head knowledge” has become “heart knowledge.” As I lay awake through the night, Reformation-era English cleric John Bradford’s phrase repeatedly crossed my mind, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Last night, 345 people spent the night at the Roanoke Rescue Mission, including 121 adult men in the men’s shelter. As many St. John’s parishioners know, my hope for the Church is that it will be the place where no one is forgotten. By that standard, if one wishes to find the Church in Roanoke, he need look no farther than the Rescue Mission.