It had been a long night.

Two hundred people in a room, some yelling, half walking out. Two hours of presentation, justification, recrimination. It was perhaps the 200th meeting in 30 years of trying to make things happen, with about a 50% success rate.

At the advent of my career as an architect, I knew I had to dedicate about a third of everything I did to those who could not afford any help making what they needed to fulfill their mission. So non-profits of all kinds—everyone from spiritual, to arts, to housing, to social services—have asked me to help, first for nothing, then for whatever the institution could pay.

A decade ago I threw $10,000 of fees into the winds when a homeless shelter found out that my good works were useless. So we hugged, and I left. Now that group was coming back, there was a new necessity, and I launched.

We applied for a new location for their shelter. But there was a firestorm of opposition, since the only place we could build had homes near it (amid auto body shops and churches). So meetings were held to listen and change our design to adapt as possible to what was best for the neighborhood short of not building the shelter at all.

At that meeting I was one of five that presented. I was yelled at, praised, shunned, hugged—like so many of these gatherings that have resulted in several hundred built things.

At the end of this session, involving five hours of prep and presentation and response, I was talking to the person who had yelled “LIAR!” at me an hour earlier, arranging a meeting with him so talk could replace anger.

A thin, older woman interrupted us, grabbing my hand in the meeting. Following hubbub and mumbled words I could not discern, she squeezed my hand as I looked into her eyes. Not knowing what she had said, I responded, “Thank you,” realizing that she might have been highly outraged and I just could not hear her.

The meeting broke up, and I wandered out into the black, crisp night.

She was there.

“God wants you to do this.”

“Thanks again,” I awkwardly responded, stopped in my tracks.

“I believe in God,” she threw out.

“I do too.”

“He wants you to do this.”

My slight fear was gone, my guarded posture dropped.

“I just hope I can live up to it.”

“Oh, no, out of all those that he could have chosen, he chose you, he wants you to do this.”

We froze for a moment. I thought I might have smelled a bit of wine on her breath. We stared for a second. “Thank you,” I said again, now hearing what she was saying.

I walked to the car.

I was alone, but I was not alone. When I could listen, I could hear. I had been given this woman’s affirmation, but more, I was given everything I can give. I earned nothing.

Then what was I actually giving, anyway?