Reflections from the Mailroom

November 17, 2017

Written by: Sam Steffen

I do not think it would be too far from the mark to say that mail has always—at least, for as long a time as I can remember—been one of the great preoccupations of my life.

When I think about all the seminal childhood experiences I had kicking the dirt around my parents’ mailbox as I waited for the postal carrier to bring me a letter from some distant relative on my birthday; the times I sent away for something, or wrote to someone in the hopes that they would soon respond; the times I have eagerly torn into a paycheck from a job that I have worked, or despairingly revealed some bill from a power or gas supplier; or when, more generally, I think about mail as a vehicle of news and information, as a means of operating business, as a platform for initiating discussion and debate, as a political weapon and organizing tool, as one of the only available ways for prisoners to communicate with the world outside—when I think about all of this, I begin to suspect that I am not alone in this feeling, that there are a great many of you out there for whom the mail either is or has been, at some time or other, a fundamental preoccupation of your own.

One of the things that continues to baffle me about Broad Street Ministry’s Mail Service is how it actually works. Difficult as it is to keep track of the delivered mail of 3,000 people, there is an unavoidable and hopeless wondering that sets in when I begin to consider the undelivered portions of it on behalf of all those awaiting it. The times have not been few that I have gone home and sat up late only to put myself into a nervous, tossing sleep speculating where all of the cell-phones and social security checks and access cards have gotten to, which so many of our guests have been told in great confidence were sent out ages ago, and should have already arrived…

Fortunately, in the face of such continual pressing uncertainty, I have developed the following strategy. Whenever I am presented with the daily challenge of attempting to produce someone’s absent belonging, my initial thought is to wonder whether it’s still on the way. Often, I will verbalize this thought aloud, saying, with characteristic hopefulness: “Maybe it’s still in the mail?” This will sound like a cop-out to you, I am sure. Even so, I have, for no apparent reason of late become such a believer in the mail’s potential to contain everything it promises that these words were tantamount to a statement of faith.

And while the mail, as an institution, is certainly credited with being the source of some frustration and anxiety for those who must wait on it, day after day, it is no less frequently the source of gladness and gratitude, when long-awaited things arrive, as they sometimes do. I don’t mind saying that the frequent and distinct privilege of myself and many of those who work and volunteer in the Mail Service here at Broad Street is to be the final hand in this otherwise invisible process, that so often yields a real, material answer to someone’s lofted prayer. It’s a small thing, but it’s enough to convince me that we’re doing good work here, making the world a little better, and that—who knows?—maybe the best one yet to come is already in the mail.