Several weeks back Rev. Mark posted a request from AHOPE about needing volunteers under 65.  I reached out to AHOPE and have been volunteering off and on since then.  As requested, here’s an article to share with other congregants about my life while in isolation. Note that there is a call for supplies at the end of the article.

“There, but for the grace of God, go I.”  This statement popped into my head as I drove past the homeless shelter looking for a place to park my two-year-old Mercedes – a car that seems ridiculously inappropriate during the current state of affairs, and one that I’m quite sure will be added to the list of debt that will go unpaid in my new life as an unemployed American.  As I walk to the back door of AHOPE, reporting for my volunteer shift on a sunny Saturday morning, I assure myself that this is surely the least of my worries – at least I have a roof over my head and heat in my house.  My sensitivity to wanting to appear as though I fit in quickly, to feel like one of the regular workers or volunteers, wore off immediately as I was greeted with a warm hello from one of the clients enjoying coffee outside, bundled in as many blankets as she could hold.  It was still early March, and the nights had been far too cold to be on the street.  I handed her a muffin and she gave me a huge smile, asking if I used to be a basketball player, saying how lucky I am for being so tall.  She makes me laugh.

I was assigned mailroom duty so that I could acclimate to the surroundings in the rather cramped space behind command central.  Command central is where the staff is able to register clients into the system, deliver their mail, and provide them with necessities such as socks, underwear, shampoo, razors…you name it.  Due to the tightened restrictions for social distancing brought about by COVID-19, only a few clients were allowed in the building at one time, making it difficult for them to take showers, make phone calls, see their case worker, or simply come in from out of the cold and warm up with a cup of hot coffee. This is now a very accelerated process and could create stress for the clients and the staff, but there’s no stress to be seen.

As I brought out the clients’ mail, I was able to observe the beehive of activity out front as staff handed out supplies, calling each client by name, checking in on their mental and physical health, and offering encouraging words and support to lighten their day.  This was a system that, despite the looks of it being somewhat chaotic to my naïve eyes, was indeed very functional.  And the gratitude that was shown…it was enormous.  “Thank you for the socks, Pip…I’ve been wearing two pairs that have been soaking wet for a week,” said one of the clients.  It made me want to do more besides look for mail.

On my next visit I knew that I didn’t want to work in the mailroom if there were opportunities that allowed me more interaction with the clients.  My friend, Joe, the volunteer coordinator, gladly gave me tasks such as handing out food and coffee off the back porch, cleaning the public spaces every half hour with disinfectant wipes, and then washing the floors of the rooms for the women living at Room In the Inn, an AHOPE program shelter.  As I mopped the floors between the mattresses that were shared in this makeshift room, my heart felt ripped open as I thought about the circumstances that led these women to take shelter here.  Aside from a few items by their bed, their entire belongings were required to fit inside a 30-gallon tub that they only had access to when the shelter was open.  As I mopped, with tears streaming down my face, “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” became my mantra.

You see, in December of last year I lost my job.  After the shock wore off, I resigned myself to knowing that the next great position was around the corner.  People switch jobs all the time, so I didn’t really have major concerns about not finding another one fairly quickly.  I packed up my two dogs and my belongings, drove across the country, and moved into my Asheville home that had been a rental property for 12 years.  It was a long-awaited dream for me to move here, as I knew in 2008 that this was where I was being called to live.  The only catch was that, although this is a thriving and bustling city, it is not one with big-city jobs like I had before.  I’ve always known Asheville was a B.Y.O.J. (bring your own job) town, and as much as I tried to do that, God had other plans.

Thinking I’d be gainfully employed by February at the latest, it’s now four months later, and the rest of the country is now sidled next to me in the unemployment line due to an unforeseen global pandemic.  Wow! Now if that isn’t some crazy story of codependency, I don’t know what is! I mean, surely I could have handled this alone, and I looked forward to the metamorphosis that I knew would take place now that I was finally home, but did I really need to bring millions of Americans along to commiserate with me?  Apparently so.

Now that I’m sheltering in place, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to think about this recent experience: about my emotions related to my own fragility, the real prospect of homelessness for millions of people around the world – and possibly myself — our crumbling society, and the disenfranchised who are often left to fend for themselves when the system let them down.  I have unwavering faith that God does provide – not in a manifest-it-and-it will-come way, but in a way that is beyond human capacity to understand.  I’m reminded that no one chooses losing their job, homelessness, or a virus to be the catalyst for change.  It’s bigger than that.  God invites us to see the gifts in all of our experiences large and small, and in the good and the bad. God taught me to see the irony of a girl who likes nice things but can’t pay the rent and who is volunteering at a homeless shelter – that there’s beauty in a smile between two strangers who are six feet apart, and that the very things that define us could be the hands of our undoing. That being sequestered in our homes means we have a home.

Amidst this crisis, there are a multitude of blessings.  It is my belief that we must learn to be grateful for the gifts that don’t come in packages with a bow.  We must be grateful for the difficult gifts, the challenge to figure it out one minute after the next, the opportunity to see just how much we’ve strayed from what is truly important.  We’re learning so much about ourselves during this time of isolation, and we’re seeing our earth respond with a heartfelt “thank you.”

I’m so grateful there are places like AHOPE, Homeward Bound, UUCA and other congregations that are there for our human family in times of housing, shelter, spiritual, and physical needs that can overwhelm the strongest of us.  And as I walk this path of uncertainty, I observe God’s bounty everywhere and say “there, through the grace of God, with a grateful and humble heart, go I.”

AHOPE still needs volunteers and is in observance of the strict 6-foot social distancing policy, however, you can also support them through a donation of socks, underwear, individually wrapped sandwiches, brownies, cookies, protein bars, or fruit, or any items that would help those who are sheltering-in-place in camps to remain there.  If you can find it in your hearts to offer these items to our brothers and sisters in need, I promise to give you a giant hug when it’s safe once again.  Thank you!

~Lise Anne Ellsworth (new Member since February)