On Mercy: ‘Sister says…’


Over the last six weeks, I have come to the conclusion that I work with God.

If you walked through the door of the homeless centre, you wouldn’t be able to pick her out, because she spends most of her time in the kitchen, out of sight, preparing the meals that are served each day. She’s very quiet, and keeps a low profile. She is there when I arrive in the morning and when I leave at night, and lately I’ve realised that she’s often here when I’m not: she gives sandwiches out on a Saturday, and there are a handful of people who ‘come to see Sister on a Sunday’. Sister is endlessly available.

Sister is also a soft touch. You don’t have to work with homeless people for long before you realise that, one way or another, some of them are taking advantage of you. The truth of people’s situations can be pretty elusive, and their story can vary depending on who they’re talking to, and what it is they think they can get from that person. Sister doesn’t seem to care. At first, I wondered if she believed everyone, but now I realise that she’s nobody’s fool – she just, by and large, gives people what they ask for. So I’ve learned that our more difficult visitors come and ask for Sister straightaway, or tell me they have already spoken to her. Then they sidle up to me and begin, ‘Sister says I can have…’, and I know the cause is lost. I will go and get them what they want. Sister has spoken. Occasionally, her generosity drives other members of staff nuts – someone will tell a client that they can’t have x, y or z –for good reasons– but Sister will go ahead and give it to them anyway. ‘Oh, give her a couple,’ she’ll say.

Her patience is endless. The lives of the homeless people we work with are often chaotic, and the concept of opening hours does not always lodge itself in their minds. They will turn up as we are closing for the day, trying to sweep, mop and get ready for the next morning, and ask for sandwiches, a coat, a cup of tea, a food parcel. Often as not, my reaction is mild annoyance – they know when we’re open, why can’t they come then? Sister doesn’t seem to mind. She has a brief conversation, gets them what they need, and sends them off. ‘He could have come earlier,’ she’ll say mildly, and go back into the kitchen.

It’s true that there’s a place for tough love in homeless shelters, the kind of love that challenges people and tells them to get up and walk. But as I’ve reflected on the Year of Mercy, which comes to an end this week, it’s the refrain, ‘Sister said…’ that I’ve ended up thinking about.

Her mercy has taught me to see people differently. A few days ago, a man turned up as we were closing and we went through the usual rigmarole of telling him he was too late, to no avail. In broken English, he told us he wanted to speak to Sister. Sister appeared, and she made him a sandwich. Yesterday he showed up again. The first time I’d seen him, when he’d arrived late, I’d looked at him with frustration – we were busy trying to clear up, and he was being a pest. Yesterday, I saw him through the eyes of mercy: sick, desperately alcoholic, wearing sandals with no socks on a day when sleet was falling outside. I saw him as a person, and as the worthy recipient of mercy, love and attention, however much of a pest he is, and whatever time he shows up.

Often, her generosity makes me see myself differently, too. More than once, I’ve realised that my instinct to say ‘No’ to someone had more to do with my need to show that I wasn’t going to be taken for a ride than it had to do with their need. So the guy wants toothpaste and he could afford to buy it? So what? And sometimes, I’ve known that my instinct to say ‘Yes’ has something to do with my desire to be acceptable –or at least not to have someone mouth off at me because I won’t give them what they want. I have never had the impression that her generosity is about needing to be loved or admired or accepted: she just gives because she can, and they need.

I think it was probably like this walking around with Jesus. The disciples are full of practicalities, like sending people away to buy food after a long day listening to Jesus teaching. But Jesus knows when their attention to practicalities is an excuse for their own lack of generosity, and he calls them out: ‘You yourselves give them something to eat.’ He knows, too, when the disciples’ concern that his time shouldn’t be wasted on trivialities is really a reflection of their own priorities: ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them, because it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ Jesus was no fool. No doubt many of the people who came to him were taking advantage too, and their interest in him ended when they got what they wanted. He didn’t care; he went on gathering crowds and healing the sick anyway, like the sower who throws the seed in armful after armful, regardless of where it lands. God does not limit his love because we want so little of it, because we so consistently take only what we think we need, and not the whole of what he desires to give us. God gives, because God is, because we need, mercy.

Photo credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões on Flickr