I have slept in a church or synagogue-operated homeless shelter approximately once a month for the past twenty years, first in Nashville, then in New York.

People often seem impressed by that, probably because we usually sleep in close proximity only to those to whom we are connected by blood, law, or emotion. In a shelter, you sleep in the same space with people you’ve never met, or hardly know.

It’s no big sacrifice for me. I doze off within ninety seconds on any approximately flat surface. And nobody should complain about a job that allows you to sleep through most of your shift.

In fact, my twenty years as a shelter volunteer might well brand me as a collaborator in a system that favors charity over justice, a system that chooses to operate shelters instead of building affordable homes within our community.

And yet, there is, without question, a special “community” in those hours between “lights out” at 9:45pm and the harsh flip of the same switch at 5:30am, when guests rise, eat a quick breakfast, gather their portable property, and hit the streets so the building can return to customary use.

Within that community of the night, there’s the anxiety of the 2am coughing spell that breaks your slumber. You lie in the darkness, praying that it will end before you must get up and call 911, hoping the guest has been tested for tuberculosis—reminders, even in this act of service, of your inherent self-centeredness.

There’s also inspiration, from the woman who stayed in our shelter for more than a year, and would arrive late because she was struggling through evening classes at nursing school.

Within that community of the night, there’s the embarrassment of the guest who has lost control and must ask you for extra sheets to fashion a crude skirt until she can find a laundromat later that day.

But there’s also the volunteer who rides in the ambulance with the guest who’s bleeding and fearing miscarriage, and stays with her at the hospital until her partner arrives.

Within that community of the night, there’s the experience of sleepily stumbling barefoot to the bathroom at 3am and standing face-to-face, at that moment of mutual vulnerability, with somebody whose daily life exists in the midst of your own, and who is never invisible, but usually unseen.

And those rare moments of what can only be attributed to “grace:” the three-day-old baby, whose mother is homeless, released with her from the hospital to a rubber mat on a gymnasium floor, attended eagerly by two young women from the congregation, both pregnant with their first children.

Volunteers will offer dozens of diverse reasons for serving. Perhaps it’s the command in Torah: “You shall surely open your hand to the poor and needy in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11)

Or the reminder from a first-century rabbi of our responsibility to the “least of these,” persons whose care pushes us out of our comfort zone.

But it’s not only about ancient, sacred texts. There’s also the realization that the guest, currently homeless, and the volunteer, currently housed, are not so different.

It’s the sense that we’re both uniquely talented, uniquely conflicted persons sharing the road on an all-too-brief journey, and that our usually ordinary, sometimes awkward, occasionally gracefilled encounters within the community of the night can somehow bless us both.

James Melchiorre is senior producer for Trinity Television and New Media.