by Kerri Gailey
My name is Kerri, and I volunteer at the LOT Project. It sounds really nice that I volunteer with the poor doesn’t it? Before you begin to think I’m some sort of saint, let me be very honest about how I came to be here. I was invited to volunteer during the Christmas holidays. Many of the volunteers are college students who go home for winter break, leaving HOPE nights a little understaffed. I agreed, because, hey, it’s Christmas. I could pat myself on the back for having my holiday good deed done. (Check that one off for the year!) I wasn’t ready for the heart change God had in store for me.
I had no clue what to expect, and I was a tad bit nervous. All I knew was that my GPS was taking me to a not so great part of town, and I was supposed to enter through the big green door. When I arrived, I was greeted by this tall, surfer-looking dude named Andy. He checked in my 7 year-old daughter and me as volunteers, giving us both nametags. Only my daughter’s nametag didn’t include her last name, for safety reasons, Andy explained. Okaaay…I’m already out of my comfort zone, and now the mama bear is coming out in me. What did I get my child into?
Andy explained how we would be given a job for the night, and that Meredith, my daughter, could just stick with me if she wanted. While waiting for the volunteer meeting to begin, he explained that everyone would be given a bag to fill with clothes. And if they needed, there were toiletries, blankets, and sleeping bags available as well. However, the sleeping bags were reserved for those sleeping outside.
Wow, just wow. Talk about an eye opener. It was going to be really cold that night. I’d never taken the time to think about people sleeping out in that weather, in major cities, sure, but in Anderson? It was getting close to Christmas, and here I was wishing for colder weather so it would seem to me like “holiday weather.”
During the volunteer meeting, Jean explained how “guests” would arrive, be given a bag for their clothing items, a nametag, then a meal. The nametag thing made since to me. I’ve been in leadership classes, business meetings, and volunteer functions where nametags served to make everyone feel welcome, and to create a since of community. So I got why they would give guests nametags. I didn’t stop to think that most of the guests we would be serving had probably never been in any of those situations, and probably didn’t know why we wanted to know their names.
“Lord, break my heart for what breaks yours.” Have you ever prayed that prayer? I have, several times in fact. God decided to answer me that first night serving meals at the L.O.T. Project.
Here’s the moment that changed my heart, and kept me coming back. It was the reaction of one man in particular who came through the line with his head down. (As I’m writing this I really wish I could remember his name.) But on that night, I smiled, called him by name (thanks to the aforementioned nametags), and handed him a meal. He looked up at me in total surprise. Did you hear that? It was the sound of a heart breaking and a prayer being answered. My heart, my prayer. I realized in that moment how often that man must have felt overlooked, ignored, forgotten, and alone in a world that works hard at avoiding him. I saw in his eyes what it meant to him to be recognized by name.
Who would’ve guessed the power of simply calling someone by name? I should have. Paul wrote about the power of a name in Philippians 2:9. “Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names.” Not “a” name, “the” name. He was talking about Jesus, the only name by which we can be saved. Andy told me that night there was no better place than the L.O.T. Project to see the love of Jesus at work. He was so right.
That heartbreak moment was what I couldn’t wait to get home and share with my husband, Steve. I sat in our bedroom in tears, recounting the look on that one man’s face, and how I’d never before given much thought to people, not just adults, but children sleeping out in the cold. I felt ashamed for wishing for colder weather just because to me it made it “feel” more like Christmas. God had taken me from feeling uncomfortable, out of place, and unsure to a place of compassion.
After that night I knew specific names and faces. And it wasn’t a comfortable thing for me to think about them. Why? Because once I had my eyes and my heart opened to these guests, I felt a responsibility to try to make a difference somehow. Those names and faces flashed in my mind while watching the doomsday weather reports about the dreaded polar vortex. I began praying for warmer temperatures, and all those I’d met to have a warm place to stay. I was hooked. I told Steve I had to keep going back.
My first night stepping inside the big green door, I learned the power of a name. It made a difference to one man that I recognized him by name. It made a difference that I prayed for people by name. It made all the difference in me; that’s why I keep coming back.