As the author of the “Practical Mercy” series, Dorothy Therese is a young adult with a lay ministry degree who works as a case worker for mothers living in a homeless shelter. While reflecting on her work in light of her faith, Dorothy writes under this pseudonym to protect the privacy of the shelter guests, but can be reached via email through the link above.
I’ve been told by our shelter guests that I pull off my poker face pretty well. They are surprised when I remind them that yes, I do have feelings, and no, I don’t enjoy punishing you.
Unfortunately, I’m not surprised that I am perceived this way: I’m part of an unjust system that has continued to oppress them, a system they have to manipulate to survive. But if I’m going to be a Christian in this job, a disciple of Christ whose entire being was self-gift, then for heaven’s sake (literally), I need to do something differently. I need to be just.
My ‘poker face,’ is, of course, rooted in my desire to be professional enough not to dissolve into tears when I’m telling a mother that I’m kicking her out; but this needs to be in check with my status as a human being with just as much dignity as our guests. The mission of the shelter is to break the cycle of homelessness for individuals and families, and guests cannot remain if they aren’t ready to work for this. These mothers are indeed working so hard in a variety of ways: raising their kids, getting jobs, working on their GEDs, attending programming with open minds, attending counseling with open hearts; and yet in other ways, they keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again, and eventually the consequences of the poor choices become brutally clear.
But doesn’t this happen to all of us?
One of the most sweet, loving, hilarious moms at the Center, Anna, moved in right when I started my job, and she has been one of my favorite people at work. She is open to growth, she wants to be in relationship with me, and (selfishly!) I appreciate that she looks at me like I’m a human being too. But after literally ten incident reports for the exact same mistake, after asking her to write an essay about how she will change and then watching her forget to do it (twice), after countless apologies that didn’t seem to lead to change, I decided with our team that she might only learn from one thing: she would have to be asked to leave for awhile. She knew, and we knew, that she needed a reality check.
But as we considered this choice, and what it would take for her to learn and grow, and how to help her be the person she is called to be, I couldn’t help but wonder: is this justice?
Is it ever really just to kick a mother and her children out of a shelter? Is it just for the mom, for the kids, for the community? On the other hand, is it just to let her stay, when I could see that she was slipping through the cracks of her own mistakes and thus that I was not helping her to grow? This couldn’t possibly be mercy either, could it?
But I held back my tears when I told her she had to go. We had started the meeting joking around, as we do the instant we see one another. She had told me she was so tired from her new job that she wanted to call me just to hear my voice. She had saved notes from me teasing her, and loves to repeat these stories to me and to anyone who will listen. But there we were; the meeting ended with her in tears, telling me she had no where to go, that she was sorry, and couldn’t there be another way?
God showers mercy upon me day after day after day, and with Him, there is always another way, another chance. Despite all my mistakes and sin—mistakes I, too, make over and over again, just like Anna, God gives me another chance. Thomas Merton called God “mercy within mercy within mercy.” Our sins are said to be just a drop in the ocean of God’s love for us, so immense is His mercy.
After all, God is Mercy and God is Justice. God saves us from our sins while also separating the sheep from the goats. God lets me confess my same sins over and over again and yet calls me to something more. If justice is “right relationship,” God’s justice is embodied in the Trinity as a dance of love. God’s mercy is deeper and more profound than I ever knew, wild and radical enough that He would send His Son to the Cross. His very being redefines mercy and justice, and helps me to re-think the way I go through the day, given so many important decisions to make.
After just a year in my humbling work, I’ve learned that justice and mercy are not just questions. They also unfold before my very eyes as I walk the corridors of the homeless center. In my office today I overheard a mom go out of her way to help out our newest resident: that’s justice; that’s right relationship. I wind my way through mat after mat of sleeping overflow guests when I work late, perhaps the people most bruised by our unjust social system, finally given a warm place to rest their heads. I get notes in my box from staff praising my more angry residents for resolving fights on their own, and even saying sorry. Justice.
Maybe mercy is giving a guest the cup of coffee I brought in for myself just because I know she would like it. Or looking her right in the eye when I ask her how she’s doing. Or whispering to her three-year-old to give Mom a hug because she’s crying. Or pasting up that same child’s red and yellow crayon drawing on my door to make him smile. Or asking the guests for advice to show them they have value—and because I truly do need them while they need me.
My job is teaching me so much about what it means to love people well. Like a good parent, I need to know when to challenge and when to hug. I need to know that consequences do teach lessons, but so does compassion. I need to work for a just society even within our walls, and I need to imitate the abundance of God’s mercy in every encounter with a guest.
Anna reminded me today, as we stood in the parking lot catching up with each other, that the day I told her she had to leave was a day she really realized how much I care about her. And this usually isn’t so—most of the time, I’m considered… a lot of words I can’t publish here, and I have to accept that. But I know in my heart that I have prayed, that I have consulted experts, and that I would never intentionally hurt someone I love as much as I love our guests. I have to trust in my own ability to harness the mercy God showers on me in order to shower it on others.
God is the one who is ultimately offering mercy and justice to homeless mothers, and all the people in our lives, through our unworthy hands and feet…and even, perhaps, a good poker face.