Pulling up a chair

I did not expect to find God as I was sitting around a folding table at the Interfaith Works Women’s Shelter*.

The volunteers had pushed two tables together. The refrigerators and freezers stood at attention around the room, and the pantry closet in the corner held dry goods.  The room was clean but well used.  A dozen women filed into the dining area to eat dinner from the make shift buffet of homemade mashed potatoes, meat loaf, vegetables, and desserts.  The volunteers politely served the meals.

Some of the clients laughed with one another and bantered back and forth about the day.  Other women quietly ate their meals and left to do laundry or other personal chores.  After I finished my serving duties, I removed my industrial latex gloves and asked the remaining women if I could join them at the table.

The women were intrigued to learn that I was a rabbi and the volunteers were from a synagogue.  They turned the conversation into a Judaism 101 session and compared their faith traditions to my own.  “Do Jews believe in Jesus?”  “What is this about not eating cheeseburgers?” “How do Jews pray?” We were a Jew, two Christians, a Mormon, a “Messianic Jew” and an atheist gathered around the tables.  We were Africans and Latinas, Midwesterners, West and East Coasters, and Southerners.  Not even the Neilson Rating company could have brought together a more diverse group of people.

We explored each other’s faiths, our respective rituals, and even how religion had shaped our childhood homes.  We listened to each other describe how as children we prayed.  They prayed kneeling at the bedside and sitting in pews. Prayers were recited from books and crafted from the day’s events.  Even though these women are now living in the shelter, they maintain a strong vision of the homes they will create as they re-establish themselves.

I was a participant, not the leader in the conversation.  The longer we listened to each other, the feeling grew that something more profound was emerging.  We were people of faith engaging each other with an openness that invited God into that room.  We sat together without judgment – informally in communion with one another.

Like Jacob waking and declaring “God was in this place and I did not know it.” (Gen 28:16), I realized that something sacred was occurring.  God’s presence was revealed through the humanity shared between these people of faith.

I could not resist quietly saying to myself “shehechiyanu vakiamanu vahigiyanu lazman haze” thank you God for sustaining us and bringing us to this moment.

My faith is the outcome of experiences, not the mere result of the intellectual hunt for God.

My earliest memory of volunteering at a shelter was not an act of faith but of necessity.  I needed a community service project.  My mom drove me from our affluent suburb to the shelter at Glide Memorial Church in the tough Tenderloin district of San Francisco.  This house of worship embraced people stricken by poverty, addiction, and disease.  Fulfilling the basic need for food became a vehicle for uplifting someone’s spirit – for valuing their humanity.  Those acts of compassion are sacred.    My actions helped me understand faith more deeply.  Three decades later, I am still inspired by my experiences at Glide and the work of Rev. Cecil Williams.

What are you doing that will help you experience the Divine?  Today, God is experienced in more subtle shades than in the luminous times of Abraham or Moses.  If you are waiting for the clarity of a Mt. Sinai experience for God, you may need to be very patient.

I felt God’s presence at the women’s shelter.  All I had to do was walk over to the table and pull up a chair.


* To learn more about this shelter and how to help, click here.