I thought we would stand inside the bus, behind the open window and the metal counter and the giant thermoses of soup and hot chocolate. That’s what they told me when I signed up. I feel very comfortable hiding behind things: people, large objects, rules, and the mask behind which I keep my emotions. Please don’t ask me to go out there and make small talk or take names. But ask they did, and when the folks at the Relief Bus ask you to do something for Jesus, well, you kind of have to buck up and just do it.
I don’t do small talk on the best of days, with regular every day folks. I lean towards the socially awkward spectrum, although I hide it fairly well. But, there’s something discerning about the homeless, as if they can see right through your masks and your motives for being there. They can smell a phony holding a cup of hot soup many, many feet away.
When we arrived and the bus set up shop, they gave us neon vests to put on over our clothes. We carried bags filled with toiletries, socks, and the odd pair of gloves. They set us loose in the train station, in groups of three. Can I tell you? It’s not always easy to spot the people in need. Sure there’s the toothless drunk, the threadbare, the mentally ill. But there’s also the pregnant teenager wearing clothes that came off the rack at the mall, the man in the business loafers and the high-end pair of eye glasses, the young guy in the baseball cap, and the welder congenially sharing a joint with a buddy.
It was awkward, uncomfortably so, to give an invitation to come and eat. To offer help, a pair of white socks, a listening ear. There are so many people living on a razor’s edge, just one bad decision or unlucky chance away from sleeping on a train bench. They needed so much, but they were generous with their stories and with their thanks. It reminded me of my days in nursing school and at work, rotating through psych wards and nursing homes and inner-city home visits. I stood on the corner at the end of the Relief Bus night, and I heard God whisper to me, “You’ve forgotten this. You’ve been here before.” And I knew I had, I’d once offered the cup, the help, the ear, but I never thought to offer the thanks.
I never once thought to thank my patients for showing me the face of God, for allowing me to be the hands and feet of Jesus. I was too busy complaining in the break room. I forgot I’d been there before, until I stood in a train station in Newark, with nowhere left to hide. I stood along with the others, balancing on a razor’s edge between hope and quiet desperation.