It was a crisp, cool morning in Boulder, Colorado. I pedaled along the Boulder Creek Trail, soaking in the sights and sounds of an early spring morning. A breeze danced through the bare trees, causing the cracked and weathered branches to gently sway as I pedaled past. The drivetrain on my aluminum road bike hummed quietly as I crossed arched wooden bridges, observing the clear, rippling water beneath me.
I left the trail and rode past Pearl Street, watching as a few pedestrians peered at touristy kitsch through expansive store windows. I rolled into the littered alleyway between Pine and Spruce on Broadway, dismounting my bike as I coasted to a stop outside of the Boulder Carriage House – a tiny homeless day shelter that served the homeless and working poor of the city. I had been volunteering once a week during my free time as a student at CU-Boulder, serving healthy meals and providing necessities to those who needed it most.
Up until this point, I knew next to nothing about the homeless, or even homelessness in general. Like most Americans, I was completely oblivious to the relentless challenges that so many of our brethren face on a daily basis as they struggle to survive, often reiterating extremely narrow-sighted and ignorant stereotypes that far oversimplified the problems of homelessness. Months prior, I had read a book that had completely challenged my way of thinking. It was a little paperback book entitled The Irresistible Revolution. Author Shane Claiborne writes:
“…I think that’s what our world is desperately in need of – lovers, people who are building deep, genuine relationships with fellow strugglers along the way, and who actually know the faces of the people behind the issues they are concerned about.”
These were the words that urged me to step away from my ignorance and inaction and step into a world that I had never previously dared to enter.
I learned invaluable lessons during the eighteen months that I worked as a volunteer at The Carriage House. I found out that individuals struggling to survive on the outskirts of society could not be condensed into neat little statistics to be analyzed. I met incredible people and heard amazing stories of perseverance and heartbreak, of hope and hopelessness. As I began to build relationships with the poor and marginalized of my city, I began to deeply understand things that I had only previously speculated about, and it broke my heart.
I began to realize how truly broken our world is, and that not one thing, save the Love of our Father, could ever provide a true solution to such a corrupted system.
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Now, over two years later, I work for a homeless youth drop-in center where I share life with homeless and at-risk youth on a daily basis. We hear so many horrendously heart-breaking stories from our kids, and it causes me to truly weep over such seemingly irreparable brokenness. But over time, my heart can begin to become calloused because of the number of stories we hear and the incomprehensible magnitude of each one. As someone who works in the fields of non-profit and ministry, I have found that this is an extremely common occurrence. We are often forced to choose to either not let these horrible stories affect us, or to let our hearts break apart countless times each day, forcing us to pick up the pieces at each days’ end.
Over and over again, we are forced to choose to either merely serve the surface-level needs of our youth, such as food, clothing, and housing assistance, or to truly love each of our kids on a deeply spiritual and emotional level, allowing ourselves to be completely broken and vulnerable. Henri Nouwen describes it best:
“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”
Compassion calls us to step beyond the borders of society, even completely erasing them in the process. Compassion urges us to love with reckless abandon as we attempt to reassemble the broken pieces of those we serve and so dearly love. It forces us to love with purpose and in action, not merely with words. It challenges us to allow ourselves to be as broken as the hearts of those we care for, and it can change everything.