May 28, 2014

Working Through It

I've noticed a trend....I work through most things in my life by writing/blogging.  It helps me make sense of it all. It helps me empty my brain of all my thoughts, order said thoughts and then see how my brain and heart are processing whatever issue I'm working through.  Flannery O'Connor says it best, "I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say."  Amen.

Today was a very sad day for me.  I need to process everything that's happened over the past three months and have a place where I can go back and read and remember what it is I learned from this special person at this time in my life.

For the last three months I've volunteered once a week at a homeless shelter downtown.  My original plan was to read to the children there.  The position I wanted was called "Roving Reader", right up my alley.  But upon my orientation I learned that there are no school age children around during the time that I was available to volunteer.  The coordinator kept hinting that "Donations" really needed help, so I figured, why not, all I want to do is help, so I may as well help where they have the most need.  I was placed under Varney, the only one in charge of the massive amounts of donations that needed to be processed on a daily basis.

He was actually surprised to have his very own volunteer.  Not just any volunteer, but one who stayed. He was used to having college kids show up one week and never return.  I came every week - excited to work for him.  I LOVED my "Wednesdays with Varney".  He grew to trust me. I grew to respect him.  We traded stories.  Here is his:

Varney grew up in Liberia and immigrated to the U.S. twenty years ago.  (I knew nothing about the history of his homeland until after I read a book about the horrible coup and consequential wars his country and people have lived through since the 1980's).  He landed in Brooklyn, NY.  He eventually settled in Minneapolis.  He worked at this shelter for 5 years.  He is one of the kindest, patient men I've ever met.  He spoke Liberian English which took a little bit for me to get used to, but once I did, I enjoyed the lilt to his accent.  He was very patient with my constant, "excuse me's?".

I marvelled to him one day about how he could remain so kind to everyone around him even after I had witnessed blatant discrimination against him.  He told me, "Cori, I just smile and pray in my head, 'Father forgive them, they don't know what they are doing.' "  He was always smiling, always ready to help anyone. He would bend over backward for anyone.  He never wanted or expected recognition. He was very wise, but no one asked him opinion.  He was very humble and peaceful.

He genuinely cared about the residents at the shelter.  He was always coming up with a way to give them more and more of the donations received that weren't being used.  He genuinely cared about every detail and was so proud of his organizational system (for a shelter this large, it was truly a feat of genius).  He was tickled that I was so impressed.  Every can in the food pantry was faced forward and in orderly rows. Every item had a home and that made him happy and in turn made the shelter run smoother.

One of the very first things he had me do was to take a load of shoes and bags down to the main atrium and let all the residents know that they were free for the taking.  He said he wanted me to 'get to know the residents - to get comfortable with them.'  How smart is that - putting a face to the people you are helping, it suddenly becomes more personal.

Every week he would ask me how my children were doing.  He couldn't wait for summer to start so I could bring them with me each week to help.  My kids were even looking forward to working with him.  They had already worked with me over Spring Break and felt the same way about Varney that I did.

I learned much from this gentle soul in the three short months I knew him.  I hadn't seen him for 3 weeks due to my being on vacation and then him taking a vacation week after mine.  I was so looking forward to seeing him again today.  However, when I got to the site today everyone was tight-lipped about my friend.  No one would share anything with me, just that 'he was no longer here'.

I told them that he was the only reason I came week after week.  I personally don't feel the shelter is doing as good a job as they think they are but came only for the chance to work with this incredible man, learn from him and talk to him.  I was devastated.

I mourn for the loss of the friend I have no way of contacting.  I mourn for the 'mysterious circumstances' of his abrupt departure.  He would never have left me hanging like this.  I wrestled all night with distraught thoughts regarding him and woke up many times praying fervently for him, for what reason I didn't know.  I shouldn't have been surprised by today's events given last night's torment. I have no way to thank the man that made such a huge impact in my life.

When I was in San Diego, walking down MLK Boulevard I enjoyed reading many of his famous quotes carved in granite lining the street.  When I read this one the only person that came to mind was Varney.


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