Pulling Up A Chair

thI did not expect to find God as I was sitting around a folding table at the Interfaith Works Women’s Shelter*.

The volunteers had pushed two tables together. The refrigerators and freezers stood at attention around the room, and the pantry closet in the corner held dry goods.  The room was clean but well used.  A dozen women filed into the dining area to eat dinner from the make shift buffet of homemade mashed potatoes, meat loaf, vegetables, and desserts.  The volunteers politely served the meals.

Some of the clients laughed with one another and bantered back and forth about the day.  Other women quietly ate their meals and left to do laundry or other personal chores.  After I finished my serving duties, I removed my industrial latex gloves and asked the remaining women if I could join them at the table.

The women were intrigued to learn that I was a rabbi and the volunteers were from a synagogue.  They turned the conversation into a Judaism 101 session and compared their faith traditions to my own.  “Do Jews believe in Jesus?”  “What is this about not eating cheeseburgers?” “How do Jews pray?” We were a Jew, two Christians, a Mormon, a “Messianic Jew” and an atheist gathered around the tables.  We were Africans and Latinas, Midwesterners, West and East Coasters, and Southerners.  Not even the Neilson Rating company could have brought together a more diverse group of people.

We explored each other’s faiths, our respective rituals, and even how religion had shaped our childhood homes.  We listened to each other describe how as children we prayed.  They prayed kneeling at the bedside and sitting in pews. Prayers were recited from books and crafted from the day’s events.  Even though these women are now living in the shelter, they maintain a strong vision of the homes they will create as they re-establish themselves.

I was a participant, not the leader in the conversation.  The longer we listened to each other, the feeling grew that something more profound was emerging.  We were people of faith engaging each other with an openness that invited God into that room.  We sat together without judgment – informally in communion with one another.

Like Jacob waking and declaring “God was in this place and I did not know it.” (Gen 28:16), I realized that something sacred was occurring.  God’s presence was revealed through the humanity shared between these people of faith.

I could not resist quietly saying to myself “shehechiyanu vakiamanu vahigiyanu lazman haze” thank you God for sustaining us and bringing us to this moment.

My faith is the outcome of experiences, not the mere result of the intellectual hunt for God.

My earliest memory of volunteering at a shelter was not an act of faith but of necessity.  I needed a community service project.  My mom drove me from our affluent suburb to the shelter at Glide Memorial Church in the tough Tenderloin district of San Francisco.  This house of worship embraced people stricken by poverty, addiction, and disease.  Fulfilling the basic need for food became a vehicle for uplifting someone’s spirit – for valuing their humanity.  Those acts of compassion are sacred.    My actions helped me understand faith more deeply.  Three decades later, I am still inspired by my experiences at Glide and the work of Rev. Cecil Williams.

What are you doing that will help you experience the Divine?  Today, God is experienced in more subtle shades than in the luminous times of Abraham or Moses.  If you are waiting for the clarity of a Mt. Sinai experience for God, you may need to be very patient.

I felt God’s presence at the women’s shelter.  All I had to do was walk over to the table and pull up a chair.


* To learn more about this shelter and how to help, click here.



  1. God is always there. You just happened to notice God at that moment. People expect believing in God is going to change their life. It is not. Engaging in activities that God tells us to do makes the whole world a better place. Just go with it and try not to make it too complicated, because it is not.

  2. Excellent story and thanks for sharing. Somehow, we need to inspire our children to leave their cushy environments and give so they, too, can experience “God”.

  3. Greg’s feeling that God was in the room is typical of what I don’t get about religion. I get that something wonderful was happening between a good hearted man and a dozen underprivileged women and that it would warm the hearts of the most cynical among us to witness or be part of that encouner. But why burnish the image of God by associating Him with it? It was Greg who made it happen, because Greg is a good man. There are plenty of good men who are atheists who could have made it happen also. Where is the evidence or relevance that God was present, any more than the evidence or relevance that God was present at Auschwitz. If God is omnipresent, why even mention His presence? I think Greg is being unduly modest and somewhat unaccountable by using God as a metaphor for “the best sides of our selves,” It is the converse of “the Devil made me do it.”

    1. dsa2014 has an interesting point. Do we use God to explain things that we can not explain, like Greg’s feeling of humanity that he felt in that time and space? Or can we just accept that warmth of spirit, that touch of the innate human spirit that exists in all of us. Almost like touching a nerve. The question is whether that exists in us all the time, only when we let it in or does there need to be a higher power that controls that connection?

  4. What then, Larry, might be the value in externalizing an inner power in the form of an entity called God? Would we not all be more accountable for our behavior if we recognized that we, and not Him, are responsible for our actions? If there is always Someone out there to forgive us our trespasses and lapses, where is the incentive to act responsibly and ethically towards our fellow (wo)men?

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