The urge to give the small child an extra helping of stew was almost overpowering. I dipped the ladle and I felt a gentle but firm hand touch mine. My dad subtly shook his head. I knew he was right. The homeless shelter director had told us to make sure everyone gets a little food first and to resist the urge to give more. As I watched that little kid walk away with a sandwich and some soup, I felt an ache for him. I listened to the storm rage outside the building. Where was this kid’s refuge? Where was he going to hide from the bitter Utah winter?
Most of the people at the homeless shelter were just plain grateful. We served there about once a month. One time, we ran out of bread and my dad and I took his Volvo and went to the Wonderbread store. We bought every white loaf they had. The backseat full of carbs made my mouth water. My favorite part of serving in the homeless shelter was when the toothless guy who ran the kitchen would emerge from deep inside the freezer with a Cadbury Egg for me at the end of the night. He was the nicest guy.
My dad was in charge of the men’s youth group at church. He decided that the best way to teach these young men to help themselves was to serve others. I tagged along by default. “You’ll be safe as long as you stay by me” dad said. So I did. He was my refuge. I stayed close to my dad, made sandwiches, wiped tables and gave out soup.
By the time Dad passed away when I was 13, I had served at the homeless shelter no less than a dozen times. I still think of Cadbury eggs when I remember those evenings.
After he passed away, I developed a really bad habit of wandering. I wasn’t homeless by any means but I was seeking some refuge. I would walk the streets of my little town in the mountains all day after school and sometimes all night long. I only got caught for curfew once which, statistically speaking, is a miracle.
When you’re hungry and lonely, the last thing in the world you want to talk about is how hungry and lonely you are.
One night, I had finished wandering. I was starving but nothing sounded good. So I laid on my driveway looking up at the stars. I watched the rest of the stars pivot around the North Star and wondered what made it so powerful.
“Hey.” My next door neighbor and best friend Mel had interrupted my midnight reverie.
“Hey. How was your night?” I asked.
We began to discuss the events of the day, of work, of boys and of our families. We talked about mostly trivial things and it felt delicious. After we had concocted a plan to ask so-and-so to dance and what we wanted to eat for breakfast, we fell into the warmest silence. It was late. Late enough that concrete felt comfortable. Our eyelids got heavy and the stars seemed fuzzy.
“Feeling better?” She asked.
“Much” I answered with my eyes closed.
At this point in time, I’d been searching for a place to help me feel less ache-y for years. On that summer night, sitting with my friend, I realized refuge wasn’t a destination life had in mind for me. It was the people who surround me. It always has been and always will be.
Refuge is defined as “a condition of being safe or sheltered”.
For me, Refuge is my people. The people who are okay laughing and crying together, sometimes in the same conversation and for sure in the same day. The ones who are strong enough to hold up space for me; space to feel and be and figure my messy self out without judgement. It’s the people I’d do anything for. It’s the people who still see fit to pray with me over a dinner of Chicken Nuggets and oranges. It’s the afternoon naps on the couch holding Abe and it's my lap that my teenagers still crawl into at the end of the day to discuss life.
I occasionally think about that little boy at the homeless shelter all those years ago. I pray that life gave him some refuge eventually; the kind that kept him alive and safe from the storm and the kind that kept him warm and hopeful.
Photo by Rachel Downey Photography. Do yourself a favor and follow her.
Some of my people.
My Mel. Still, 25 years later, she's refuge for me. I hope I'm the same for her.
One of my happiest places.