Archive for January, 2009

posted by Amy on Jan 18

Every Sunday I take the train from school, where I live, to Center City (which is what everyone calls downtown Philadelphia), where my new church is. It’s just two stops. I get off at Suburban Station.

This morning after I arrived at the station I had time to have a cup of coffee and work on Greek vocabulary. The final exam is this Friday. I grabbed a stack of flash cards on my way out the door, and I planned to go through them a few times while sipping coffee, then walk over for the 11 o’clock service.

A little black woman wrapped in a filthy quilt, wearing a black stocking cap, dragging around another filthy quilt that was sticking out of a hole in a black trash bag, asked me for fifty cents. I said no and walked away. I took about ten steps, then turned around. “I could buy her something to eat,” I said to myself. I asked her if she’d like me to do that. She said, “Yes, please. Some hash browns and a cup of coffee.” I said, “How about some protein, some eggs or something?” She said she’d like eggs, and sausage. I bought her a breakfast sandwich and some coffee. The quilt that she had on parted slightly. Except for a pair of sneakers, and some socks, she was naked from the waist down. Her shoulder bag was strategically placed in a fig leaf position.

We went over to a bench and sat down. I asked her name. “Sherry.” I told her mine. I said, “What happened to your clothes?” She said, “I don’t have nothing.” I asked her where she slept last night. She said outside, by the train tracks. I asked her if she had a case worker. “I used to. I lost track of her.” I asked about her clothes again. She said, “My pants got wet.” I almost started crying.

She ate most of the sandwich. She wrapped up the last of it, and stuck it in her purse. I said, “We need to get you some clothes.” She agreed to wait on the bench while I went out looking for something for her to wear. Ever since I was a little girl, every so often I’ve had a dream about finding myself in a public place with no clothes on, wondering how that happened and trying to figure out what to do about it. Sherry was living that nightmare.

Macy’s is very close to Suburban Station, and it’s the only place I know downtown that sells clothes. I headed for it, got a little turned around, and ended up approaching from the side opposite City Hall. I tried the door. Locked. The sign said they open at 11 on Sunday. I checked the time: 10:49.

I decided to look around for some other place. A surplus store looked promising, but it’s closed on Sundays. Another block away I saw a neon “open” sign and went towards it. Ah, good, one of those “big lot” stores.

It was a challenge to find clothes that were small enough. Sherry is very tiny, and evidently most of the people who shop there are not. I got a pair of black cotton velveteen drawstring pants and a matching zippered hoody, a turquoise sweatshirt (the only size small they had), the one pair of size 5 panties in the place, and a pack of three pairs of socks, plus a duffel bag to put everything in. I would have preferred non-cotton clothes, since cotton gets wet easily, and is cold when wet, but that’s all they had. The total cost was $27. I had the clerk cut off all the tags and put all the clothes into the duffel bag.

As I walked back towards the station with Sherry’s new bag slung over my shoulder, I was hoping she’d still be there. I wasn’t sure she’d wait around. I decided not to worry about it. When I got back to where I had left her, Sherry was sitting there, and so were two security men in a little motorized cart. They said they had called “outreach” to help Sherry. I said I had some clothes for her.

We went to the restroom (until then I didn’t know they had one) and I helped her dress. First the panties. They fit. She had on a filthy, worn, baggy T-shirt. I helped her take that off, and I put it in the new duffel bag. I helped her pull on the sweatshirt. Even a size small was big on her. The pant legs and sleeves were a little long, but otherwise the pants and hoody fit. She said, “I can wash these and wear them again,” as if that is unusual. Maybe it is for her. I folded up the quilt and put it in the duffel bag, along with the extra socks.

She was very happy about the clothes and duffel bag. She smiled and gave me a hug, and said “God bless you.” I said, “You’re welcome.”

We went back out to where we had left her other stuff. The cops were gone, and the “outreach” people were not there either. We waited, and talked some more. She asked if I have any children and I told her I have five. I asked if she has any children, and she said she has eight, and their father has custody. She said she hoped to get them back. I said I was pretty sure she needed a place to live and a job in order to get her kids back. Dumb thing to say. She knows that.

She asked if I was on my way home when I met her. I said no, I was on my way to church. She said “I used to go to church.” I said, “You could come to mine,” and told her where it is. I don’t think she will.

Sherry said she needed to go use the restroom. While she was gone, the cops came back to ask about her. They said, again, that they had called “outreach.” When Sherry got back I asked her what the outreach people would look like. Do they wear badges or special jackets? She said no, but they work in groups. “Do they work for the city, or are they volunteers?” She said they work for the city. She said she might not go with them when they came. I said, “What else can you do?”

I don’t know why Sherry doesn’t have a coat, or a place to live. I don’t know why her life fell off the rails. She told me she’s 40 years old. She told me she’s thinking about studying for her GED. Her favorite subject in school was English. She likes tennis.

She asked for my phone number and I wrote it on a piece of paper and gave it to her. It’s long distance, so I doubt she’ll be able to call me. She said if she saw me again she’d try to pay me back for the things I got her. I think she meant it, and she would if she could. It also helped preserve some of her dignity.

Sherry said she was tired, and laid down on the bench, using the new duffel bag as a pillow. She said she was cold, and I said she could use one of her blankets. I had stuffed the other one back into the trash bag, and stowed it under the bench. She asked me to get out the one that was in the duffel bag. I said it was wet, and stinky. She said she didn’t care. I tucked it around her and sat down. I went through my flash cards. I read USA Today. Sherry seemed to be asleep, or maybe she was just tired of me. I decided to go home.

I don’t know how to describe how this makes me feel. I am pretty sure Jesus won’t mind that I missed the worship service today, but I don’t feel righteous. I don’t think I changed Sherry’s life. In one of our conversations she said she gets Social Security, and it is direct deposited. She asked to borrow a pen, and I gave her a piece of paper. She wrote down the days of the week and the dates between today and February 2, the day her next check comes. I didn’t ask where all her money went.

Philadelphia’s homeless program is a model for other cities, including Denver. Evidently there is help available, though I didn’t get to meet them in the nearly 4 hours that I spent with Sherry. She mostly seemed lucid, but she chuckled and smiled periodically for no apparent reason. The cops knew her. They thanked me for helping her.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said that the rich have an obligation to help the poor, that they hold their surplus in trust for God’s people.  He said that if you and your family have food, clothing, shelter, and one other thing, then you are rich. I don’t have an income, and haven’t since August, but at least I have a roof over my head. I thought about bringing Sherry home with me, like a stray puppy. She could take a bath and wash her hair while I laundered her dirty quilts and clothes. I could give her some lotion for her dry, cracked skin. I could feed her some more, and figure out how to get her delivered to someone who would take responsibility for her. One reason I decided not to do that is she doesn’t get around very well. She shuffles slowly, her head bent over, every step seeming difficult and painful. The main reason, though, is I didn’t think I was being asked to do that.

Like everybody, I meet beggars all the time. The experts say not to give them money, because they’ll just spend it on drugs or booze. Sherry asked for money, and, following the standard advice, I refused, but something told me to go back and offer her food. Then, when I saw that she had no clothes, I couldn’t leave her like that.

I could lay some Matthew 25 on this story and, to a Christian, it’s perfect for that. But I would hope that anyone with a shred of humanity would have done the same thing, if they had the means. Matthew 25 (the famous “sheep and goats” story, where the people who helped Jesus when he needed it get to be with him, and the ones who didn’t are condemned, and both groups ask Jesus when they saw him hungry, naked, thirsty, sick or in prison) is an unambiguous teaching about what one must do to be saved.  There’s another one, about an unnamed rich man, and a beggar named Lazarus who starves to death outside the rich man’s gate. But is there anyone who would let someone starve to death outside their front door? Or who would walk by someone like Sherry and not help her? Is salvation really that simple, and easy?

I just don’t know.

posted by Amy on Jan 17

The world is ignoring the brutality of Robert Mugabe’s reign of Zimbabwe, which was once a prosperous and medically advanced nation. Pray for Zimbabwe.

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posted by Amy on Jan 1

I went back to Denver from December 17th to the 27th. I had to return to school in time for my January term class (New Testament Greek), which started December 29.

I wanted to be there, but I wasn’t sure how it would be. I still own a house, but it’s rented out to strangers. I had no base of operations, no kitchen (of my own), no car, and very little money for gifts. I am happy to report that it was a great trip. I didn’t feel deprived of anything important. I hope my kids feel the same way. (I’m not sure they’d tell me anything they don’t think I want to hear, but I still hope they were happy too.)

I spent the first few days with my friends Ken and Margaret, who have six children, five of whom are adopted. It reminded me of when my 5 kids were all at home. It was great fun.

For the rest of the trip I stayed with friends in my old neighborhood. The first night I attended a three hour choral performance of Handel’s Messiah with a friend who is, like me, a singer whose schedule prevented him from being in a Christmas show this year. He told me it helped him get into the Christmas spirit. The next day was Sunday. I went to church with my daughter Lily. Afterwards we were greeting other people in the congregation. The man who was sitting in front of me said, “you should sing in the choir.” I told him that I did, but had gone away to school, and was back for a visit. After church Lily and I got to spend some time hanging out together at her place. Later Sunday evening I remembered that the annual Christmas open house on my block is always the Sunday before Christmas, so I bundled up and walked there. It turned out it was the right night and, as the host said, “alumni are always welcome.”

On Christmas Eve I attended three services at my home church. They host a homeless lunch program every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and decided to start having a noon service on Christmas Eve. I got there early so I could talk to some of the lunch guests and invite them to come to the service. One guy asked me how long it would take. I suppressed the urge to ask him if he had an important business meeting or something. (I try to be good–but there’s a mean, selfish little brat in my head. I don’t usually let her out, but she’s always messing with me.) I just gave him a straight answer. I think some of them actually do have appointments–they might have to report in with parole officers, or they need to get in line at a clinic, or to get a bed for the night. The lunch looked pretty good, and I had an interesting conversation about spy novels with one of the lunch guests. Some of them did come to the service.

I went back for the 7:00 service. The chancel choir sang for that. I should have sat in with them. Instead I was in the balcony, and got to experience my church as a Christmas Eve destination. It’s in a beautiful building, with a giant pipe organ. It’s always tastefully decorated with real evergreen garlands. There’s a lovely Advent Wreath. Lots of brass. Lots of softly polished oak. Red carpeting. It’s really the perfect place for a candlelight Christmas Eve service. To the choir, it’s a liturgical event. In the balcony, it seemed more social. I’m not knocking it, especially if people were generous when the offering plate came around, but I saw very few familiar faces. I don’t know if the Christ child was born in any hearts in that balcony or not. I guess all we can do is try. In any event, there was standing room only in a sanctuary that seats 1100, so on the basis of sheer numbers it was a success.

I hung around afterwards and talked to choir buddies and other friends. That was good. Then I went to our family Christmas gathering, at 9 p.m. at my daughter Efe’s place. It was the only time all the kids (all but the eldest, who didn’t come to Denver for Christmas this year) could be together. We had hot beverages, opened gifts, and played a trial round of a card game called Bang! I went back to church for the 11:00 service. (For all this running around my host let me borrow his huge and venerable pickup truck. It has a sticker on the back that says, “This is Not an Abandoned Vehicle.” I drove a minivan for years, which is basically a truck, so I did a decent job of maneuvering it.)

I’ve always loved being in the sanctuary when Christmas actually comes, right about the time we light the candles and sing “Silent Night.” This year I sat near a lovely couple who have always been very kind to me, and who greeted me warmly. The late service is contemplative, and includes communion (a relative rarity in Methodist churches.) By the time it was over I felt adequately imbued with Christmas spirituality.

Christmas morning my hosts got up early to go skiing. I read for awhile, then went to Lily’s apartment. She decided to duplicate our old Christmas custom of Christmas stockings, eating oatmeal with apples and raisins, and opening gifts. It was just three of us, Lily, Jesse, and me. Lily made stockings for me and Jesse out of an old T-shirt. It was so sweet of her to do that. There was a beautiful mango in the toe of my stocking, and a pomegranate in Jesse’s, plus we each had other treats from “Santa.” After breakfast we walked downtown to see a movie. It was a beautiful, sunny day. The sky was utterly cloudless, and an amazing, deep blue color.

Later that day I went to Christmas dinner hosted by Lily’s boyfriend’s parents. They set a beautiful table, cooked amazing food, and kept the wine flowing. It was a warm, friendly, happy gathering. Kurt, Colin’s dad, had scanned old family Christmas photos and created a slide show for the big screen in their family room. He said the first time he watched it he cried. I could relate.

The next day everybody but Efe (who decided to go snow boarding) and Elizabeth (my daughter-in-law, who wasn’t feeling well) gathered at the house of my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew. We had lunch, talked and visited. It was great too. That evening my hosts had friends over for dinner. I helped with some of the cooking and other preparation, and I had fun getting to know the dinner guests.

Christmas was just fine. I need not have worried. I had always tried, when the kids were growing up, to make sure Christmas meant more than presents and consumption, and it appears that I succeeded. The kids were all fun to be with, and, if they were disappointed in the token presents that I gave them, they didn’t show it. I love my house, and although I always enjoyed decorating Christmas trees, baking cookies, hosting meals, singing in special Christmas performances, and all that, I didn’t feel deprived. Christmas seemed complete the way it was. It was truly delightful just to be with people I love, to have conversations in person instead of by phone or internet, and to have some time off from school. It’s also nice to think I might be valued just for who I am, and not for what I can provide in the way of presents or entertainment.

It was a great vacation, but I was glad to return to school. I’m not very good at being idle. Ten days is just about my limit.

When I was 22 (the same age as Lily) my mother went away on a trip, died in an accident, and never returned. I know that some of my anxiety and guilt about leaving my kids comes from having experienced that loss. I know how hard it was for me to be without my mom, even though I was nominally grown up (married, with my own apartment, and attending law school). On the other hand, part of my decision to go to seminary comes from the same experience. We never know how much time we have. At a high school reunion in 2001, one of the men said, “If there’s anything you’ve been thinking you want to do, go for it. This is not a dress rehearsal; it’s all we’ve got.” I don’t know if he knew then that he was sick, but he died of cancer later that year.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the greatly simplified and altered Christmas that I had in 2008, it’s that love is the most important thing, and love is not something to have or give or receive, it’s a way of being. I tried to be loving with the lunch guests at church on Christmas Eve. I tried to be open to God’s love for me, and spend time in God’s presence, in gratitude. I wanted to be with and talk to family members and friends. I wanted to be around children, and experience life from their point of view. I decided that it was OK to play a supporting role in formal celebrations. I don’t have to be the star of the show. In fact, it’s not a show.

One great thing about going back to Denver is I get a lot of smiles and hugs, and I get a warm sense of acceptance and belonging. I don’t feel rejected at school, nor do I feel that I don’t belong, but the people here are still basically strangers. It’s great to be able to pick up a decades-old conversation where it was left off, and dive back in. It’s great to see kids I’ve watched grow up–mine and other people’s–and see them look so happy to see me. It’s great to have friends grab me and hug me, and say “welcome home.” I needed that, and it was the best Christmas gift of all.

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