As I’ve mentioned before, my husband Bryan leads a ministry that serves chili to 100-200 local homeless people each Thursday night. At the end of the year, we took all three of our kids to serve for the first time (that’s two 4-year-olds and a 2-year-old). I had only been once before myself, so it was a new experience for me as well. We brought apples, bananas and tangerines and put them in a little wagon that the kids could pull around. What an impactful and emotion-filled night it was!
When we arrived, I have to admit I was a bit worried about what the kids would say or do. My concern was validated as soon as I opened the van door. Kenna immediately pointed to the people standing around and asked loudly, “Mommy, are THOSE the homeless people?”
I wished at that moment my car was outfitted with a giant hole to crawl into.
After we had a talk about holding questions until the ride home, we went to arrange food on tables with other volunteers. Bryan was away talking with some of his homeless friends when I suddenly heard his voice rise above the crowd.
“Someone call 911.”
I didn’t know why he said it, but my heart fell into my stomach. This was soon after the Connecticut shooting and my mind ran through a thousand scenarios of what could be happening. I rushed the kids into the van, telling them I wanted to get warm for a few minutes.
We soon learned that two of the homeless people got into a fight and one slashed the other’s face with a knife. The victim was treated and the attacker ran away. In four years of weekly service, Bryan had never before seen any serious violence. I decided we should go ahead and serve as we planned, but the incident weighed heavily on me. To be honest, I questioned my judgment for taking three small children to serve in an environment with such risks.
Reservations or not, it was time to pull the wagon around. Kenna, being the “take charge” person she is, grabbed the handle of the wagon and matter-of-factly approached the first person she saw. She asked, “Would you like an apple, banana or tangerine?”
The man requested a banana, and Kenna handed one to him. When Nathan saw how this was working, he picked up an apple and gave it to the same man. And then Alexa, our two-year-old, took a tangerine in her tiny hand and gently held her arm out to offer a third fruit. The visual of these small children reaching out with an unhesitant love to a man who appeared so different from anyone they had ever encountered literally gripped my heart.
We gave out 150 pieces of fruit that night. There were people who beamed seeing the kids. There were people who didn’t respond at all because they were too high on drugs. There were people who said they don’t like fruit. There were people who had to explain they can’t eat apples because they have no teeth (due to extensive meth use). Nothing deterred the kids.
When we got into the car to leave, I started to debrief by telling the kids how happy they made the people they served and how happy they made God by spending the time to love others. I was puzzled to see Kenna start crying softly.
In an uncharacteristically gentle voice, she explained, “Mommy, we did not make them happy. What they need is comfortable beds.”
I couldn’t fight back the tears. I was amazed to see a genuinely broken heart in a four-year-old. And I was broken-hearted myself to witness her realization of the limitations we have in serving.
Nathan, who rarely gets serious, then offered his own solution in a hushed voice filled with heaviness: “Mommy, I know where there is a bed store. We can buy beds to put on the sidewalks.”
Oh, the tears that came.
It’s so natural to want serving to be an investment into tangible outcomes, like providing beds for the homeless. Even a four-year-old can see the temporary and insufficient material impact of a piece of fruit. But love doesn’t require outcomes. Love only requires being present. And love is what we are called to do.
I don’t have any easy answers as to whether it’s “appropriate” to take small children into a risky environment. What I do know is that this experience had a profound impact on my kids, offering them a window into what it means to simply love…even when all we have to materially offer is a piece of fruit.