By Evanne Montoya
Perhaps some part of me knew that things needed to change. Perhaps on some deeper, more honest level I was aware that timidity was a crutch that I had clung to for far too long. Whatever the cause, I decided to join En Christo, and that decision's impact refuses to fade away.
En Christo is a Whitworth student group that passes out food to homeless people in downtown Spokane and residents of Park Towers, a low-income housing complex. The student-founded club has been meeting since 1990. We have three groups. Floor teams go door to door in the tower handing out food and talking to people. Street teams spread out to a few places frequented by Spokane's homeless population. And the 20th floor team hands out soup and talks to residents.
Four of us pile into a car and join the caravan heading downtown. By the time we've gotten through all of the usual "getting to know you" questions, we've arrived at the bank that allows us to use its parking lot. As college students pour out of the cars, a snowball fight erupts, cut short by a student leader telling us to "circle up." Still laughing and brushing off snow, we listen as he calls out our assignments. This week I'm on 20th. Grabbing buckets of food, we shuffle down the icy sidewalk toward Park Towers.
When we arrive at the building, we pack an elevator full of people and bins of food. As always, we wedge a few too many people in, and end up shuffling together to make room for a resident as we head to the top floor. This is our home base; everyone will grab some of the bags of food and head out from there. When we reach the top, I sit down next to one of the residents and introduce myself. Some of the people who live in Park Towers come to the 20th floor to talk and eat soup. I ask her a couple of questions to try to start a conversation. It doesn't take much prompting; soon she begins to tell me about her family and the crocheting class she has started.
Today I'm comfortable, but that certainly wasn't the case the first time I went from door to door delivering meals. I was more than a little nervous even though I had two veteran volunteers, Rachel Yaun and Josiah Brown, with me. I've never been all that enthusiastic about talking to people I don't know. It takes a lot of courage for me to talk to just about anyone. I've always been shy. When I was a kid, if a store clerk said hello to me in the supermarket I'd immediately begin crying. My mother would have to apologize and explain that I just didn't do well with strangers in general. Nowadays, a simple hello no longer produces terrified tears, but I still won't win any "Miss Congeniality" contests anytime soon.
When Rachel asked if I wanted to knock on the first door, I blushed and refused. I was relieved when she went up and knocked on it herself. No such luck with the next door.
"Come on, it's not hard," she urged me. I stepped forward, held my breath, and tried to ignore the nervousness brewing in my stomach. I knocked.
Knock-knock. "En Christo," I said, announcing our presence. I was relieved when no one answered.
I tried to opt out of the next door, but she would have none of that nonsense. Once again I stepped nervously up to the door, and said the words that would soon be second nature to me. Knock-knock. "En Christo." This time, the door opened.
The woman who answered was elderly, and used a cane to walk. We introduced ourselves and handed her a couple of bags of food. She started to talk about her upcoming back surgery. After a few minutes, she invited us into her apartment and showed us her Christmas decorations. When she came to the door she looked worn out, but as she talked she began to smile.
As we went from door to door on our three floors, some doors were opened, some were not. One woman said almost nothing but gave each of us a hug. Another refused the food, but opened her door to tell us how much what we are doing is appreciated by the residents. A few invited us in. With others we conversed in the hallway.
One man couldn't seem to understand that we actually wanted to talk to him. Every few minutes he'd say, "I'm sure you don't want to spend all of your time talking to an old man like me." When we assured him that we did, he smiled and brought a mug with a picture of his grandchildren on it and began to tell us about his family.
That trip was exhausting for me. Yet when I got back I couldn't stop thinking about the way each resident looked at the beginning and end of our visit. I was amazed by the way people who seemed hesitant to talk to us, or even open the door, were reluctant to close it by the time we left. I realized that there is something more important than my own comfort. As difficult as it can be for me to step out into the uncertainty of interacting with people I do not know, that is exactly what I have to do if I want to have any impact on the world.
That's why, three months later, I continue to build my courage and get out of my comfort zone.
As this latest trip draws to its end, another volunteer taps me on the shoulder and lets me know that we're starting to clean up on the 20th floor. I turn back to the residents I have been talking to, shocked that three hours have already passed. I say my goodbyes then help push in chairs and clean up.
After returning to Whitworth, we meet to pray and debrief. Each team talks about the experiences they have had. As stories of broken families, health problems and loneliness are juxtaposed against those of growing friendships and new doors opening, I am reminded that the food we bring isn't the heart of our work. Yes, for some it is the food that opens the door. But the sympathetic ears and friendly smiles we bring are of more value to the residents.
Once again we form a circle. We sing the doxology, ending somewhat off-key and laughing at ourselves. The circle breaks up, and we settle back into our normal existence. I could go back to being immersed in the comfort of the Whitworth community, protected by my circle of friends. But I don't. I've learned something. I cannot know the person behind the door, nor who they will help me become, unless I first knock.