Over the last few months the world as we know it changed. Travel stopped. Countries shut down borders. Restaurants, schools, churches, and many services closed down. We stopped being able to safely spend time with our families and friends. Community Centers, parks and entire streets shut down to remind us how important it was to stay inside, to stay apart.
The United States faced more job losses than we experienced during the Great Depression and to date lost more American citizens than during the Vietnam War. Tens of thousands of us grieved the loved ones we never got to say goodbye to. Millions of us experienced job losses, housing and hunger insecurity for the first time, suddenly dependent on the generosity of others to keep our families housed and fed. Millions more felt fear like we had never known before - fear for our vulnerable loved ones, for our jobs and homes, for our families, for our world. Our world collectively faced an enemy intent to destroy us, the likes of which many of us had only seen in movies or read about in history books, resulting in a sudden and startling change in reality. But no matter who we are or what we’ve experienced one reality is certain for all of us: we all have a story about how our lives changed over the past months and what we feel as we go forward.
Now, as states and countries begin to ease restrictions and we take our first, timid steps into “normal” life, we are left with a dozen questions - one being on the forefront of everyone’s mind. “What is the new normal? What does ‘normal’ look like now?”
Like much of the world is experiencing, the new “normal” at the Topeka Rescue Mission is the strangest we’ve encountered in over 65 years of service. We look around and see our staff and guests wearing masks and sometimes other protective gear. We have had to adapt to numerous social distancing rules and new policies to protect ourselves and those we serve. The myriad of changes can make our daily operations feel surreal, but even in the midst of them the most important things remain the same: we are still here to help the homeless, the hungry and the hurting, and we still need each other.
During the last few months our community has come together in unprecedented ways to show just how much they care about helping their neighbors and protecting one another. We have seen long-time volunteers who lost their jobs standing in line alongside guests for food, and first-time volunteers stepping up to help distribute meals and supplies. Other volunteers have served in our school room to help teach the children of our guests while schools are closed.
Our donors are answering the siren call, standing with us to meet our vastly increased needs for food and services as well as to purchase more masks, protective equipment and hire additional staff to keep everyone safe.
Many of our guests have also asked what they can do to help, volunteering their time to work alongside our staff. During one of our orientations to demonstrate how to properly wear masks, a homeless guest shared that he was a former HAZMAT worker. He came to the forefront to give us pointers on how to use and properly dispose of the masks, continuing to give us insight into keeping people safe.
Added to that are the numerous others who have helped from their homes or socially-distanced spaces: volunteers who sewed masks to help us meet our needs for safety, donors who spent their stimulus checks buying food and supplies to help those we serve, and guests using their free time to make gifts for those around them to give out as blessings during the crisis. One after another we have seen an influx of people coming together in whatever capacity they are able and helping in any way they can.
“What is the new normal?” It’s a question each one of us will continue to ask in the coming months with an answer that can only be revealed over time. But at the TRM we have seen that the new normal is an opportunity for community. An opportunity for coming together to help each other and love our neighbors as ourselves. We have seen that the new normal is a chance for communities to understand more about the people living, working and surviving around them - both the strong and the vulnerable, because in a crisis we are all equal parts strong and vulnerable.
More than ever before we have seen that the vulnerable are not just the homeless, the hungry, or those with physical, mental or emotional challenges, and we have seen that the strong are not just the ones who have been able so far to depend on their job, houses and health. We’re seeing firsthand that it has never been “us” and “them”, but we are intertwined together more than we ever knew.
More questions will come during the next few months. “What will our lives look like for the rest of this year, next year?” “Will my family and I be safe?” “What if the enemy comes back with a vengeance?”
No one has the answers yet, but we are encouraged in what we see happening around us at TRM and throughout our community: people coming alongside each other in whatever ways they are able to protect, to serve, and to love.
The Apostle Paul stated in first Corinthians 13:13, “Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” May we together by faith press on towards the hope of a better future and in the process remember to love God with all our heart and love our neighbors as ourselves. †