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.