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“Have the Courage to Be Useless”

Read this reflective narrative about being there for someone in need, even if it makes you feel useless.

Someone experiencing homelessness needs shelter for more than their bodies. They need a place to be a human being again, a place where brokenness doesn’t exclude them from others. If that’s not the definition of a home, I don’t know what is. I recently ran into the poverty of that kind of homelessness and it called something new out of me.

It was 7:30 a.m. and the shelter was filled to capacity with people who were impatiently trying to warm up after surviving the winter chill on the streets the night before. I was with a group of volunteers and my job was to serve hot coffee — I was with people in need, and I was glad to have something to do, something to offer.

I was on my third lap around the dining room. Having filled every cup, I was scanning the tables for the first sign of an empty mug. I don’t like to feel useless. If I am honest with myself, the idea scares me. Why would I make a point of doing service if I was just going to stand around?

After surveying the room, there it was: a half-empty mug. I went right for it. “More coffee for you, sir?” I offered. The gentleman’s response caught me off guard. He was clear, stern, and unrelenting: “GIVE ME A SECOND! You just filled me up, let me take a sip first!”

His reply instantly erased that feeling of being useful that I was clinging to.

I finished my volunteer shift replaying this exchange over and over in my mind. It threw me for a loop. I took a quick rest at one of the tables before heading out to carry on with the rest of my day. As I poured myself a cup of the coffee, someone sat down next to me. To my surprise, it was the gentleman who denied my offer for a refill.

Without much prompting, he began telling me about his life. He shared about his wife, who had left him a few months ago. He told me about his last job and how it had unexpectedly fallen through. He described the anger he carried from having to find shelter night after night. I could hear his relief as he spoke — it was like his words and experience finally had a home.

My first reaction was to offer him money. After all, it was something I had that might be useful to him. Something within me steered me away from reaching into my pockets, though. Honestly, my instinct to give the man money was more about feeling uncomfortable with the pain of his story than it was about my generosity. Faced with a problem, I wanted to reach for a quick solution.

It was clear that what this gentleman really wanted, though, was someone to share, even for a moment, in the pain and truth of his story. He needed someone just to listen — that was more important than fixing anything. Was I willing to do that?

Father Dean Brackley was a Jesuit priest who understood what it meant to be a person for others. His writing invites me to embrace the courage to give up on being useful and make room for God’s invitation to be compassionate:

Have the courage to feel useless.

Have the courage to listen.

Have the courage to receive.

Have the courage to let your heart be broken.

Have the courage to feel.

Have the courage to fall in love.

Have the courage to get ruined for life.

Have the courage to make a friend.

The courage to feel useless allows me to see beyond my assumptions of what the poor may need. It teaches me to be more compassionate and understanding, rather than seeing people as problems that need to be solved. It points me to the truth that suffering does not always have a solution, but can be carried with the support of a community. Instead of avoiding others in their suffering, I am invited to a deep solidarity with them — to make a kind of home together, as two people sharing in the truth of their humanity over a cup of coffee.

To listen and offer someone my loving presence, rather than trying to fix them, is a form of service I am still developing. If I’m called to share my very humanity, how can I offer that to the people of my everyday life? How can I offer that to people who really need it?

In a room full of patrons who spent the night on the streets, I felt completely useless. Only then did I realize that sharing that feeling with someone was enough to give them shelter.

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