“I bet those nice ladies think I’m the new janitor,” I thought, as I jogged past them down the basement stairs of our 80-year-old church, carrying a caddy full of cleaning supplies. “I guess I’m OK with that.”
But for a second or two, I wasn’t OK. I had a momentary taste of how it might feel to be the janitor, and I didn’t like it. I was fine with cleaning toilets as a volunteer. Our church had just finished a week of hosting six homeless women and their children in our basement and I was helping with cleanup. Lucky me, to have access to such an easy way to feel like I’d done something Good with a capital G. An hour in rubber gloves, and then I could get back to my real life of working at a desk, where I may think I’m scraping by financially but I know I make more than the church janitor. Custodian. Cleaner. Am I showing my age, using the word “janitor?”
And then there are the homeless moms and kids, packing up their stuff every week and moving on to another church. This is what we call a “safety net” in America: networks of volunteers who put up tents in church basements and serve hot dinners and help with homework and try to make a desperate situation bearable.
I don’t have a natural facility for this kind of volunteering, or any kind, really. I did not grow up in a volunteering kind of family. I had to learn to volunteer by imitating other people. When my kids were young and pleas for volunteers began coming from their school, I learned that I was much better at hands-on time with children than committee work with grownups. I learned that I’d rather tutor a slow reader or shepherd a field trip than attend meetings and debate strategy. I’d rather clean toilets.
I sometimes quip that it’s a physical thing. I spend enough time sitting in meetings with adults.
But it’s about something else too; something harder to define. Something about not wanting to live full-time in a protected world where the closest I come to homelessness is buying a copy of Real Change from the vendor outside the PCC.
It’s uncomfortable to try to define because it sounds like tourism. Slumming, as people used to say. But what I’m getting at is more urgent than that. It’s more of a need to understand first-hand. Not fully, never fully, but to get at least a glimmer of insight into other worlds and lives.
It’s also about wanting to help in ways that are tangible, as in: Today, I helped one child read one book. I heard her inch a little closer to fluency.
My husband and I have made many, many short films for non-profit organizations. In the course of telling their stories, we’ve interviewed many of their clients. That has been another way of gaining insight. But it is not the same. Filming people tutoring or cleaning toilets is not tutoring or cleaning toilets. Watching people do it, you don’t wonder what it feels like to be a homeless child staying in a church basement in the same way you do when you are hunched over a homework packet with that child.
I know how lucky I am to have a home, to earn a living, to be part of a loving family. I also know how lucky I am to have time to volunteer. I always come home having learned something. About other people. About the world. About myself.
Save the date: Her Beautiful Brain book launch: 3pm, September 7, at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. You can pre-order now from Elliott Bay, Powell’s Books, or the large or small bookseller of your choice.