For 27 years I had a solid identity as a business professional in the hospitality industry. I have gone from the ground floor of answering a switchboard in a busy hotel corporate office at the age of 19 to learning just about everything one could learn about the hospitality profession.
Experiences are forever seared into my conscious mind about how to treat the customer in a professional, respectful manner. “The guest signs your paycheck; they are the most important person – hands down – in the business. Without them, we would all be out of a job. Treat each guest as if they were the most important person in the world. IT’S NOT ABOUT WHAT YOU DO FOR THEM THAT COUNTS; IT’S HOW YOU MAKE THEM FEEL.” Who said that? Well, me for one.
As I trained a new crop of employees coming into the business for the very first time, I would conduct orientation again and again with enthusiasm and purpose. Time after time, year after year, I would teach that what we “do” and what we “sell” is not tangible; you can’t hold it in your hand. It’s not about the clean and cozy hotel room. It’s not about the great dinner or fantastic breakfast. It’s not about the swimming pool, the tennis court or the complimentary internet service. What we sell is service – and that’s what sets us apart from the competition. IT’S HOW YOU MAKE THEM FEEL that counts.
Now fast-forward 27 years into May of 2008. And here I am, at the crossroads. Back to learning the ropes. Back to the ground floor again. My first two weeks in the ministry at Knox Area Rescue Ministries (KARM) were pretty scary for this seasoned hospitality professional. Learning the ministry. Learning the terminology. Absorbing and taking it all in just like a sponge. Just like I did 27 years ago.
And then it hit me. Like a ton of bricks. All of the things I learned about the hotel business have really been preparation for ministry to the homeless and hurting. They ARE our guests. They are looking for something tangible – a hot meal; a shower and a clean, safe place to sleep. But what they really need – what really matters to them is being treated with respect. A handshake. A smile, a hello, an acknowledgement they exist in this world. RESPECT. For someone to tell them “YOU MATTER.” The homeless have very simple needs, desires. Just like my hotel guests for the past 27 years, it comes down to one thing. IT’S NOT ABOUT WHAT YOU DO FOR THEM. IT’S HOW YOU MAKE ME FEEL.
Imagine you are a young 26 year old woman. You ran away from home at the age of 16 to get away from an alcoholic mother and a very abusive step father. Your good looks quickly got you a ride 400 miles away from home. But not without sacrifice of your virginity and self-respect. You are drinking more and more to drown out the memories of a little sister you left back in Tucson in that hell-hole called “home.” You start to drink more and more until you finally can’t hold down that minimum wage job at K-Mart that was barely paying the $60 a week rent on the efficiency down the road. A guy comes through your check-out line one evening and tells you that he can give you something later that will really numb the pain. And later that night, your nightmare begins as you smoke crack cocaine for the very first time. The next 6 years are a blur because you spent most of the time trying to find that buzz you got that very first night with a guy you didn’t even know. You have tried to stop, but when you are clean for more than 32 hours the voices in your head and the demons on your back are so strong you start “numbing down” the pain all over again. Eventually you are sleeping on the street because you are spending every penny you make turning “tricks” just to stay high. You’re at the end of your rope. You have thought about calling home many times but that guilty verdict that Satan plays over and over in your mind has kept you from dialing the last digit of the number. You are hungry, you are tired and you just want to wake up from this really, really bad dream.
As bad as it sounds, this is reality for the majority of young women that I see coming into KARM every night. They are so tired of being used and abused and treated like yesterday’s TV dinner - they just need someone to acknowledge them as a human being and treat them with warmth and understanding. They don’t need judgment. They don’t need preaching – heck, most of these street people have heard more sermons than you and I will ever hear in our lifetime. They just need the safety that comes with unconditional, love and human RESPECT. We all need it, even though we don’t deserve it. I have realized in a very short time in working with the homeless that it is this little thing called respect that draws the lost and hurting to Jesus more than any other thing. It’s nothing tangible – you can’t see it, you can’t eat it, you can’t sleep on it. It’s the value of being treated with respect without regard for what you did to get there.
It’s all about how you make them FEEL. And once they FEEL respected, FEEL clean, FEEL full and FEEL safe, they are more apt to accept what Jesus has for all of us. And that’s forgiveness at the foot of the cross. You know, it happens the same for each of us, no matter the circumstance, no matter the color of our skin, no matter our age and no matter what sins we have committed against others or ourselves. IT’S ALL ABOUT HOW JESUS MAKES US FEEL. He makes us feel accepted. He makes us feel forgiven. He makes us feel clean. He makes us feel safe in His arms. He makes us feel LIKE WE MATTER.
And now I see how God prepared me for work in the ministry over the last 27 years. After all the worrying and fretting I did about “learning the ropes” of a new job, I was taught the lessons of unconditional love and preparing for ministry work through the service industry! I was transformed and preparing to be a servant for Jesus to the least, the last and the lost. Who but Jesus could do such an amazing thing without ever letting us in on it!
I consider it a true privilege and honor to serve the homeless and hurting– more than I ever thought possible I am enjoying seeing the dirty, unkempt beards of the scraggly old men that shuffle along the sidewalk. I am finding a deep purpose in holding open the door for the prostitutes, drug addicts and street ladies that file inside seeking shelter from the night. Because at the end of the day, I want to serve my Risen Savior who gave His life for me. I want every person I meet to FEEL the same way that He makes me FEEL. Like I MATTER. Like He did it all for me.