Over the 10 years of Robes existence, a total of 37 different churches have hosted the shelter. We asked Louise Delay-Hand, team leader of 10 years and Robes trustee, to reflect on her experiences hosting Robes over the years
I’ve been a team leader at St. Matthew’s-at-the-Elephant now for ten years. I certainly feel time has flown when I write that ! The first Robes night shelter in Elephant and Castle opened in January 2007 with just ten guests. Back then we had very unreliable blow-up mattresses for the guests which more often than not used to go down during the night and in the morning they used to get picked up and taken on to the next venue. I think we must have been very hardy then – I’m not sure we’d manage with those bedding problems and logistics now !
But our improved logistics are a testimony to how Robes has expanded. For the second year running we’ll be hosting 35 guests a night in two shelters this coming winter. But, however Robes grows, I think the heart of our shelters will always remain the same. The first night of each winter season we see for the first time a list of strangers’ names. One by one they arrive at the shelter and we put a face to a name for the first time. Every year this gives me a feeling of what I’ve called to myself a kind of ‘spiritual vertigo’. Looking into the faces of our new guests, listening, deciphering their feelings, stories, suffering and joys. I always ask myself, how will we share this winter together ? How will the story between us all evolve ? Will we be able to meet this person at the place where we can help them best ? How will we each be changed by our time in the shelter ? I am sure every Robes volunteer will recognise this desire to enquire, love and share. This to me is the heart of Robes and I hope over the decades to come it always will be.
Over the years the shelters have taught me so many things. I am always moved and heartened by the cheer of people chatting around the table, playing board games and cards and their pleasure in good food; by the peace and stillness descending on the shelter at night and by the business of the morning getting going, breakfast, packing up, work-a-day things setting in motion. But just there, always present, are people living in extremis. The innumerable words and actions of grace of our guests have often struck me like a physical force. Their solicitude and kindness for each other and for the volunteers. From our guests, for whom so much has been lost and where a path to the future is often unknown and tortuous, I have learned the vertiginous gift of living in the present moment alone. Often they have shown me a world where words and gestures count for their power and kindness in that moment only. It’s a hard act to follow.
I read the other day that what really matters in life is how well we have loved and how well we have learned to let go. As I sat down to write this, those words came back to me. Being a volunteer with Robes seems to me to give us a shot at learning something about both of those things. The giving, receiving and sharing of the shelter between guests and volunteers seems to me all about how we learn to love in our humanity as a whole. And then the last morning of the shelter each year, we let our guests go and they let us go. I think for all of us, guests and volunteers alike, that last breakfast is rather like a marking of the passing of the seasons, and every year it seems to me a paradigm for all the things we all have to let go throughout our lives. Our guests, so many of whom have been forced to let go of so much already, have taught me so much about how to let go again and, if we can, to let go well. And then we are back to love again – and in the cooking, washing up, making of beds, doing laundry, errands, getting up early to do breakfast, having broken sleep on the night shift, listening, sharing, laughing, we are all offering each other chances along the way.