It was a few days before Christmas, and I was working at the front desk of a transitional housing facility, a home for families regaining their footing after a stint of homelessness. It was the weekend, and the place was quiet. I answered a few misguided phone calls of people looking for an animal shelter. A mom came in to see if we had any band-aids for her daughter. The snow fell silently outside, and I listened to Christmas carols on a scratchy radio.
And then a man walked in. He was tall, wearing a large black coat, but his voice was quiet, apologetic. I knew what he was going to ask. “Is there anywhere here we can stay here? We don’t have a place to go.” I looked out the window. A woman sat in the front seat of the car, holding a baby wrapped in pink blankets. The snow kept falling.
I tried weakly to explain that we didn’t have any emergency shelter, that prospective residents had to fill out an application. I reluctantly informed him there were, in fact, no shelters in town took children and families. He looked down. He knew this already, but they had nothing else to do that day but try.
His “thank you” was unbearable, and my throat closed as they drove away. I was the innkeeper, and there was no room for them.
Years have passed. Now different children seek refuge from me. They bury runny noses between my legs and look up at me, begging for another cracker, for me to read them a story, for just a moment with their mother. I turn them down. There are dishes to clean, floors to sweep, e-mails to answer. There are blessed moments when I can turn the legs they have been clinging to into a lap, a place for them to land. It is in these moments that they quickly remember there is a toy on the other side of the room that has not been played with yet today, and scamper away. They do not need me as much as they need to know I am there. I occasionally wonder, when the day concludes, if there were enough “yesses” to make up for the multitude of “not right nows.”
It’s Christmastime again now, and the news is covered in images of children and families staring out across a sea, wondering if they will ever be enough for a country that won’t accept them. A country that says there is no room, because the words they pray are in a language unfamiliar, because the holidays they celebrate fall on a different day.
I still wonder about that family in search of shelter. I wonder if they found a church that had enough money to put them in a hotel for a few nights. Or if they spent the night in the car, turning the engine on for a few minutes at a time in an effort to stay warm. And I wonder about the answers I gave them. Was it enough? Did I do enough?
I know the answers to that question. The social work answer reminds me that there are limits to our ability to help. The sociological answer places the blame with structural oppression. The theological answer begins to sermonize that “enough” is only born of grace.
There are answers, but even with them, the question remains. Is it enough?
The real answer, of course, is to a different question. It matters less what I do than what is done. Whether or not I was able to help is of less consequence than if the family was able to find a warm place to sleep, a home to rest in.
But what I can do is be a home for two wild, cookie crumb covered children. To find their missing loveys and wipe tears. To feed them, to teach them, to love them. They are the part of the world to which I can grant harbor. I know it is not enough, that there is more the world needs. The answers and the questions do not always agree.