Where Joy Lives

Last Sunday morning I woke up in a homeless shelter. It was my 40th birthday.

You might be thinking, “Wait, I know you have a home.” And I do. But if I’ve had a second home for the past year or so, it’s at St. Luke’s Shelter in D.C.’s Glover Park neighborhood. And this Christmas, I’ll be thinking of the five men living there now, and how amazing things happen when you step outside your normal patterns.

For this, as in many things, I have my wife to thank. She introduced me to a side of Washington that I didn’t know and rarely thought about: an entire community of people living on the streets and the invariably irrepressible men and women who help them survive and, in some cases, thrive.

I love our adopted city - I arrived in 1998 and Leslye not long after - but Washington can be a little, well, Washingtonian. A place where people are often judged by who and what they know. When information is a precious commodity, the conveyors of it can be little more than swappable pawns in a much larger game. There are times when it can seem a little unreal, or maybe just less than substantial.

Spending time with the residents of St. Luke’s is a quick and powerful antidote to those feelings. Not because their lives are more “real”, although they deal with things that I never have and hopefully never will. But because they are genuine, and their only angle is one of fellowship. Have a difficult day at work? Frustrated by events beyond your control? Resentful of someone else’s words or deeds? All of it falls away when I’m there.

Which brings me to last Saturday night, the night before my birthday. One of the counselors had been ill and was unable to work his usual 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift (the shelter, which has 6 beds, is open every night of the year). I was available, and although I don’t relish a night away from my family, this isn’t like a business trip.

For one thing, we talk - about pretty much anything - and we laugh. Our agenda is uncomplicated and for all that they endure, these five men are glad for the company, more upbeat than you’d probably imagine. It is a marvel to experience for its simplicity and sublime nature. Like hearing a perfectly sung song. I have no trouble sleeping that night.

At 5:45 the next morning, we’re awake. The guys have about an hour to get ready and leave for the day. They go to work, or to look for work. They face uncertainty that I cannot imagine. And yet, they manage to make me feel the better for having spent time with them.

What a wondrous gift. This Christmas, I hope you might encounter such joy. If you’re looking for it, I know a place.