Meeting Christ in a night shelter: a post-Easter reflection on a Maundy Thursday evening

For the last eight years at Ilford Salvation Army we have run a night shelter over the winter season. This typically runs from the first week of December to the first week of March, sleeping 28 people every night in the upstairs hall of our church building in Clements Road. For the last couple of years, we have been working on an initiative called Project Malachi to develop a ‘pop up hostel’ using a modular, re-deployable building (like shipping containers). We are excited that manufacturing of the units has begun, and the building is scheduled to be completed later in the year. However, we were hoping it was going to be completed sooner but in light of some delays we pledged to keep the shelter open until people move in to Malachi. This was a big commitment for the church and volunteer team.

One of the unexpected blessings of running the shelter on an extended basis this year has been that it has been open over Easter. Because the shelter is typically open over Christmas, we make natural associations between that festival, the homeless Jesus and the shelter ministry. This year, we had the opportunity to be more closely attentive to the grounding of this work in the Easter story. An example of this was on Maundy Thursday.

We had scheduled to watch the Passion of the Christ followed by a Love Feast. However, the shelter was slightly low in numbers for volunteers at the shelter due to some having commitments at their own churches. With a low turnout to watch the film, we thought that a better use of our time would be to help with the shelter, and then gather later for the Love Feast. Before opening shelter, we gathered for prayer and shared a reading from John 13 and the new commandment ‘that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ This also prefigured the Love Feast later in the evening.

The evening was a little bit chaotic, with some people ‘under the influence’ but the team embodied that new command with meekness and strength. We fed the hungry – people desperate to eat the food (which had been kindly prepared by Muslim colleagues offsite and then delivered to the shelter); we gave drink to the thirsty – teas, coffees and juice quickly consumed; we clothed the naked – one of the men was needing a new pair of work boots after they had been stolen from where he stored them; we welcomed the stranger – a Salvationist from Ghana visited the Corps for the first time; we visited the imprisoned – one of the guests was discharged to shelter inappropriately by probation services (an issue we are having to battle hard to resolve); and we visited the sick – late in the evening, a lady was brought to us because ‘The Salvation Army will know how to help” – she was suffering with dementia and was found wandering in a park after ‘escaping’ from her supervised accommodation. All the members of the team worked together to help everyone who was in need. It was an interesting evening but, nevertheless, a blessed one!

At around 9:30pm, once things had quietened down a bit, some of us – both volunteers and guests – gathered in the main hall for the Love Feast. As we sat together, readings were shared from Scripture to help us focus on the love that God has for us, and our own need to be able to love more, and better. As we ate and drank, I found my attention drawn to my own vulnerability and frail human condition, and the way that I embody the conditions found in Matthew 25:31-46, inasmuch as they were visible in people who would be sleeping in the shelter that evening.

Without diminishing the particularity of my, or their, situation, our common humanity – humanity common with Christ, was realised yet again: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

It is in this sense that we find the work of the shelter, and any other enactment of embodied compassion – to be a practice of discipleship. Through our simple desire to be with and imitate Him, we are shaped more and more into His likeness.

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