Joy in the Deep Freeze

This week’s eNewsletter feature story
is written by Caryl Weinberg,
FPCE director of missions.

“The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy.” Psalm 65:8 NIV


Several weeks ago at our weekly staff meeting, we spent time discussing the subject of joy. The conversation led to a couple of questions: Can you “teach” joy? Can it be mentored? Though we never came to a definitive conclusion, it caused me to think about the Overnight Shelter ministry that was happening around the same time.


For two weeks, beginning the end of January, First Presbyterian Evanston hosted between 35 and 50 homeless guests each night over one of the coldest spells in Chicago history. Along with five other faith communities in Evanston, First Presbyterian agreed to divide the winter nights between December 1 and March 10 among us, making sure that our homeless brothers and sisters would have a warm and safe place where they could both relax and sleep. Coordinated by Interfaith Action of Evanston, this was the first year we were open every night regardless of temperature. And with the shepherding of Charlene Parris, First Presbyterian members stepped up to the challenge with over 35 volunteers filling nearly all the 75 opportunities to serve.

Volunteers prepare for the arrival of our guests.

Volunteering at the shelter can be a bit disarming, and this year’s bitter cold made it even more so. Though we opened at 9 p.m., guests had lined up from as early as 7 p.m. to make sure they would get a space. When they entered, they were often cold and wet and anxious to get a spot. After that they had about an hour to get settled and have something hot to drink before lights were turned out at 10 p.m.

One would think people would be tired, depressed, or frustrated, and would just want to go to their cot and sleep. And that was true for some. But the majority of our guests “came to life” in that hour (not complaining about the weather as so many of us do) but wanting instead to visit with others including our volunteers and the Interfaith Action or Connections for the Homeless staff.


They were joyful.


In fact, on those polar vortex nights when we opened early, it felt as if there was a party happening. It wasn’t about their life being easy or hard, about not having a family that cared about them, about the hard day they’d had working, or spent navigating the social systems that might help them – or not.


Rather their apparent joy was about the relationships they had with each other, and that they built with our volunteers even in the course of a few hours. It was about who they were inside. Not about the circumstance.


And their joy was infectious. One couldn’t help but smile when someone called you by name and said how good it was to see you; when they said “thank you so much” for the cot, blanket and sheet that seemed so little a thing to provide; when they wanted to tell you a bit about their day and then asked you to pray for them. One young man got a big smile when he saw mats on the floor in his “usual space”. He never wanted a cot. He grinned saying, “you spoil me”. Imagine a mat on the floor triggering that joy and gratitude.


Our volunteers were just as warm and joy filled. It was amazing to watch someone do all the set-up (often after she or he had worked elsewhere all day), and then lovingly sit beside a guest – someone very different from themselves – to ask them how they were, or just to be present.


It was equally amazing to see volunteers arrive at 5:45 a.m. – even on the coldest of mornings, to wake people up with a smile, and bless them with the hand- and toe-warmers that our congregation had given. And though there was always a bit of “what will I face?” with the volunteers who would stay overnight, they were glad to be there. They were even grateful after having had the “privilege” of sleeping near our guests, gaining a new appreciation for being able to sleep in their own beds the next night. Our volunteers got to know Christ a bit more as they followed Him to be with and serve our guests.


Psalm 65 says “where morning dawns and evening fades, you call forth songs of joy.” Only God, present in each of us, can call out songs of joy each morning and evening whether from a shelter, or from a home. Only God can call forth volunteers that create such a space where a guest would say “It would be a tragedy if First Pres ever went away. You all love us.” Is joy teachable? Is it something that can be mentored? No. It is all about God in us, singing those songs in our hearts and minds.


Praying for your joy,


Caryl Weinberg


FPCE Director of Missions