I once spent the night before Thanksgiving in a homeless shelter in Milwaukee.
I had gone “under cover” for my university’s magazine to get a glimpse of what it was like on the inside. What I encountered blew my narrow college-boy mind.
The church-based mission had moved into an old school near campus, and there was some concern about the “element” that the shelter would attract. The student body and the homeless community were uneasy with each other. So I went to check it out.
I let what few whiskers I had at the time grow out for several days. I put on an old stocking cap and a tattered windbreaker and lined up with the rest of the men outside the brick building in the bitter Wisconsin wind.
Once the doors were opened, the new guys, like me, were plucked out of line and interviewed by a staff member who asked my name and age and if I had accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior.
A long line of about 40 of us — black, white, young, old, able-bodied and frail — were escorted upstairs to a large open area that had been converted into a dormitory lined with rows of neatly made cots.
We approached a counter where we were given a basket, a towel and a set of clean blue pajamas. We were instructed to remove our street clothes, put them in the basket for safekeeping and then head to the showers.
It was a surreal scene as we filed out one-by-one from the other end of the bathroom. Some of the more tired-looking and hunched over men seemed to walk a little easier and stand a little taller. And some of the roughest-looking characters didn’t look so tough shuffling around in identical blue pajamas. It’s amazing how a hot shower and a change of clothes can level the playing field.
I slipped under the clean sheets of my creaky cot and lay quietly listening to some of the men compare notes about which soup kitchens in town would serve the best Thanksgiving dinners.
Some laughed as they plotted their routes for the next day so they could hit more than one meal. Then it struck me that for most of these men, this was their family. They were a band of brothers who lived on the streets together and looked out for one another.
As I stared up at the ceiling that night, I felt overwhelming gratitude for my own family and a renewed appreciation for the luxuries of hot running water, clean sheets and a comfortable bed.
Since that experience nearly 30 years ago, Thanksgiving has never been about food for me. It’s about gratitude, not gravy, and what’s in our hearts, not our bellies.
To reach Jim Cosgrove, send email to email@example.com.