3:30 A.M. - my alarm goes off; time to serve breakfast to hundreds of homeless people.
Nope, not happening, I think to myself as I immediately turn it off and go back to bed.
But as soon as I close my eyes, I think of Tom*.
I met Tom yesterday, when I was working in the shelter around lunchtime. Part of my job was to monitor the homeless people during their smoke break, making sure nothing too sketchy was going on outside. Amidst stares from strangers and side glances galore, there I was, standing awkwardly in a corner by myself, in charge of observing a lot of adults who probably wanted nothing to do with me.
That was until one of those side glances transformed into a slight smile. "So you're working here for the summer?" Tom asked. My face lit up instantly. "Yeah, I'm doing an eight-week service program through my school. I get class credit for it, and I heard from past students that it's a great experience." Tom and I talked throughout the entirety of the 20-minute smoke break. He told me I was one of the first people to whom he's spoken since he's been here at the shelter.
Later, I sat by him at lunch (Contrary to popular belief, meals served at a homeless shelter can actually be quite good!). It was all small talk at first. But by the end of the meal, I was able to dive deeper into Tom's life, and I realized what a genuine person he is.
The majority of Tom's 46 years have been filled with unimaginable pain and heartache (although these words don't even begin to do his story justice). At the age of three, Tom's dad left the family. His mom went mentally insane and has been in a mental institution ever since. Tom was put up for adoption. By the age of 9 or 10, he had already been in 30 foster homes - sometimes for a week, sometimes for a year. Thankfully, the foster father with whom he ended up staying permanently was a preacher who helped start the one of the first ministries of the Hesed House program. "I guess my foster father knew where his own son was going to end up one day," Tom said with a grim look on his face.
Through our conversation, I realized that Tom knows a ton about the Bible and the Church in general. In fact, he's pretty much a "sponge" for all kinds of knowledge. He soaks it all up. "I really love to learn," he said. "I like reading all sorts of books. When you're homeless, you don't really have much to do besides read. I make trips to the library a lot." For a while, he attended college and was doing quite well. Later down the road, he left it all for a girl.
There were many scattered details of his story, so I'm not sure if I am getting them all completely accurate. And "Tom," if you're reading this and you notice some mistakes, I apologize; bear with me! Anyway, later he married. Things were looking up...until his own brother had sex with his wife. "My brother really killed two relationships with one stone," Tom remarked. "My relationship with him and my relationship with my wife."
The most recent addition to Tom's story is the sad truth that he was just laid off from his most recent job. And his truck broke down, so he has no way to get to and from work. In the past, Tom has basically used his truck as a house. He would park his truck in the back of wherever he worked, go into work, then sleep in the back of his truck on an old mattress. He said his coworkers with different time shifts would step outside for lunch breaks and look at him funny, wondering why he was four hours early for his shift, sleeping in the back of his truck or reading a random book in the parking lot. "Well, at least I was always on time for work!" Tom said with a smile on his face.
Today, he's in the process of finding another job, and he's been at this shelter for about a week and a half I think. If I remember correctly, he was at this shelter previously from 2001-2006, then went to Mississippi, and then he returned back to Aurora. To top it all off, Tom's own daughter refuses to speak to him, even though the divorce was completely his ex-wife's fault (according to my knowledge), and he hasn't seen either of them in years.
So as I reached over to turn off my 3:30 A.M. alarm, trying to forget about the breakfast I needed to help prepare and the lunches I needed to help pack for over a hundred homeless people, Tom's face came to my mind. With tired eyes and a weary heart, I thought, Do it for Tom. Do it for all that he's been through.
Tom, thank the Lord that you're pretty amazing, or else I wouldn't have had the motivation to get my lazy butt up this morning. If you can go through what you go through every single day, the least I could do is wake up a little earlier than usual and serve you. Not even the worst moments of my life could ever compare to the brokenness you had been forced to face each step of your journey. Please know how much I admire you for your courage and your compassionate heart. I barely know you, but I feel as if I've known you for years.
It's an interesting, unexpected, and unpredictable friendship, but it's one the biggest blessings in my life right now. I'm happy to know you, Tom.
And as I was serving breakfast this morning, Tom's soft smile and his, "Hello again, Haley," as he grabbed his plate made the experience all the more worth it. I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat.
*Tom's real name has been changed for his privacy.