9: A Lesson in Humility

9: A Lesson in Humility

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

A Lesson in Humility

The wings of angels are often found on the backs of the least likely people.

~Eric Honeycutt

I heard the familiar drip-drip-drip sound as I opened the door to the daytime homeless shelter. Even though it occupied the first floor of a four-story building, I had to strategically place buckets when it rained or snowed. The building was close to being condemned. But still, it provided a place for the homeless to come inside and have coffee, a brief respite from the December winds along the Allegheny River in downtown Pittsburgh.

Rules were few and mostly in place to maintain peace and a semblance of cleanliness despite the shabbily furnished structure. One of the rules: If you left the shelter, you took your belongings with you. On this particular cold, wet December day, only a handful of people wandered in and out. Most sought refuge across the street in the bus station where it was warmer and drier. It was a miserable day and my relief staff person called in sick, leaving me there alone from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

A client named Mary sat on the well-worn sofa and leaned over the coffee table, counting her coins. I sat at the desk feeling guilty that I had the only space heater.

She said, “I know it’s against the rules, but can I leave my bags here for five minutes? I’m just going over to the bus station and I’ll be right back.” Since she was the only person there and I was the only one in charge, I agreed, reminding her that she had to return for her bags.

True to her word, Mary came back within minutes and set a Burger King bag on the desk in front of me. “Here,” she said. “You can’t be here alone all day and not have something to eat.” Then she pulled an orange from the pocket of her old coat. “They gave me two of these this morning before I left the night shelter. You take one. Vitamin C is good for you.”

I felt humbled. I knew that to refuse her gift would deeply offend her. I also knew that she had spent the last of her money to buy my lunch. I asked Mary to share the hamburger with me, but she refused, insisting I needed it more. She smiled as I took the first bite. I realized that in accepting her gift I gave her something — pride that she could be generous with what little she had. She had no idea, of course, that she gave me much more than a hamburger that day.

~Linda Rettstatt

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