Becky De Oliveira —
For about a year and a half, before our city asked us to suspend operations in favor of a new coordinated entry system, my two boys and I ran a once-a-week homeless shelter in the basement of our church. When I say “ran” I mean primarily that we prepared food for our guests, fed them, made friendly conversation with them, and then waved goodbye before lights out. A local charity provided staff (also homeless people) for check-ins and to limit bad behavior, such as smoking in the bathrooms and fighting. They also brought fresh blankets to spread on the cold linoleum floor, one for each guest—on average about 30–35 each week.
We became fond of our “guys” as we called them (women had a separate venue, although we ended up hosting them for several weeks when their location fell through) and looked forward to seeing them each week. Feeling, as most people do, rather helpless in the face of so many intractable problems, we were always delighted if one of our guys asked us for something we could actually provide. Another helping of lasagna? Sure! A couple of Advil? Right on it!
One of our guys, Ron, was a special favorite, although none of us were ever sure why we felt such affection for him. Half the time he was pleasant enough, but the other half he was, frankly, grouchy—and you never knew which Ron would show up. After hinting about his upcoming birthday for weeks and even noting that his favorite cake was German chocolate, he reacted with sulky disdain when we presented him with a huge slice. “That won’t do much for my diabetes,” he barked. “I’m not supposed to eat sweet stuff.”
But in spite of his shortcomings, Ron also talked to us every week and almost always thanked us, even when he was in a surly mood. He’d ask my boys about school and give us vivid updates on the state of his leg (infected, presumably from diabetes). Given his quality of life, which was not great, I was inclined to be impressed that he managed as much good cheer as he did.
One week, he asked me for a pair of shoes. “I wear a 14. Wide. They need to be New Balance. I’d prefer grey.”
“I’ll get right on it,” I said.
And I fully intended to make this mission a priority—after all, I had a whole week before I would see him again—but somehow it turned out to be one of my more inefficient weeks. Maybe I forgot to put “Buy shoes for Ron” on my to-do list. Whatever the excuse, I’d completely forgotten about the shoes until Ron loomed into view at the serving window to pick up his plate of enchiladas—and asked for the shoes. I smacked my forehead with disgust and began to apologize profusely. “Next week, I promise,” I said, knowing that this was utterly insufficient.
“I can’t wait another week,” Ron snarled. “My feet are about to fall off. I need those shoes now.”
I took a deep breath and said something very foolish: “I’ll get them tonight. You’ll have them before I go home.”
It was the dumbest promise ever. By the time we cleaned up, it was already well after 8:00 p.m. and most of the stores in town were either closed or would be closing soon. Also, the issue of money was not far from my mind. According to Ron’s thinking, I likely had some kind of shoe fund from which to draw for this purchase, but my ministry budget barely covered the food we offered each week. I would be buying these shoes with my own money, and I wanted that to be as little as possible. The size, width, color, and brand requirements had me a little rattled. Even if I could find the exact shoes, what were the chances they’d be offered at a price I wanted to pay?
My oldest son Joshua and I sped toward Nordstrom Rack, the only store I knew that might have what I was looking for at this time of night. “Pray,” I told Joshua, and I was fervently praying too.
Why am I even telling this story? I hate these kinds of stories: A person needs some trivial thing (to find their car keys), and they pray about it earnestly for ten seconds and—presto!—God wakes up and answers. Hallelujah! The Lord is good. All the time. And then there are these other stories, the ones we all know so well, where someone gets very sick and everyone prays for weeks and months but the person gets worse. The person suffers through one invasive procedure after another. They become unrecognizable to those who adore them. More prayers. An anointing. They die anyway.
So maybe I feel a little ashamed that this prayer was answered. On the back wall of Nordstrom Rack, I found four different pairs of shoes that each would have fit the bill. They were all under $50. I grabbed a box, paid, and raced back up the hill where Joshua and I found Ron smoking in the parking lot with a group of his friends. I rolled down my window and handed him the box.
“These are perfect!” he exclaimed. “Becky, you get out of the car. I need to hug you. Thank you so much! You tell everyone at that church of yours thank you. You hooked me up! This other church is always promising to get me stuff, but you guys came through.”
So he hugged me, this giant, hulking, foul-smelling man. (No good deed goes unpunished.)
And I know this story must be annoying to anyone who is facing or has ever faced a God who seems absent and silent when you need Him most, and I realize this could all be nothing more than a grand coincidence that I am attributing to Divine Intervention, but it’s my story. And it’s Ron’s story. And I guess it warms me inside to believe that God might show up for a homeless man who needs a decent pair of shoes and a somewhat scattered woman who needs to feel useful but barely has the wherewithal to even help herself.
Becky De Oliveira is a teacher, writer, graphic designer, and doctoral student working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.