Friends in Unfamiliar Places

As a case worker at Heading Home’s emergency men’s shelter, the Albuquerque Opportunity Center (also known as the AOC), I work with those that society describes as “scary” characters. Outwardly these are the individuals who we are taught to avoid when walking down the street, labeled as—disheveled, tattooed, pierced in appearance—sex offenders, substance users, and felons. However, during my time at the AOC, my perspective has been transformed to see these individuals for who they truly are—beloved children of God.

The first day taking the bus in Albuquerque, we sat across from a man who was speaking loudly to his seat mate about how he had just been released from prison that very day. He was a large individual, burly and with tattooed tear drops falling from each eye, as well as tattoos scrawling from his knuckles up both arms. He spoke in amazement about how much the world had changed since he entered prison 20 years ago—how Walkman cassette players and brick-sized cell phones had been exchanged for iPods and iPhones. We exited the bus at our stop and turned to one another to express our fascination and fear of this man—“What had he done?  How crazy! We had been right there across from this ‘dangerous’ individual!”

My first night working in the shelter I immediately spotted the same man in the dorm. While helping with storage call he came to take some medication and get food out of the community refrigerator. He reached into the freezer and took out a box of Otter Pops—those tubes of frozen, fruit flavored deliciousness—when he unexpectedly turned and offered me one. I was surprised and unsure what to do—thoughts began racing through my head: “Was I allowed to accept food from residents? Would it be inappropriate if I did? Would it be rude if I didn’t?”

I ended up somehow producing a hesitant, “sure…” to which he replied, “What color?”

I chose pink and blue (the two best colors, in my opinion) and over our Otter pops we began to chat. I learned his name and a little bit about him. I told him that my childhood nickname had been Otter Pop because Otter sounds like the beginning of Audrey. He thought this was quite comical and still to this day calls me “Otter Pop”. It was in this moment of sharing food together, a special kind of communion that this “scary” stranger transformed into a friend. This is something that I have experienced time and time again working with similar individuals experiencing homelessness—that each are simultaneously plagued with sin and yet fully children of God—just like all of us.

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