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I noticed one of my friends on my way in to the drop-in center this morning. She was talking with a man so I knew not to wave. It was early to see anyone out and I found myself thinking of all the scenarios that found her out on the sidewalks at that time of day.
Did she get kicked out of somewhere semi-safe?
Did she need something to eat?
Had she been out all night?
She made it down to us just before lunch was served. Leftover drunk hung around her head making it too heavy to hold up. We each asked what we could do, what we could give, that would make it more bearable. Silent tears cause her mascara run. Another friend stood to tenderly wipe the black marks away.
The bloody scratches on the woman’s arms confirmed what I’d always assumed: she was a fighter.
“If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” ~ Goethe
Every day that I spend in the drop-in center is an education, a reminder of how little I actually know of the world.
The table we all sit at is old and covered with a brightly colored vinyl tablecloth. The bowls holding chips and packaged sweets serve as a small comfort to women who are struggling with homelessness, addiction, and sexual exploitation.
We color together, sometimes play with play dough, and share a meal. We break bread at that table, us women. We share holy communion with one another, amongst crude language and a sadness that I do not know.
They swap tales of slum lords, pimps, and past times shared with one another. I’m informed that if you don’t have tits and ass you won’t get anything down there. Nothing to rent, nowhere to stay.
There is laughter and teasing. One friend shares a couple of jokes she knows as she cleans her feet with peroxide. She can’t see to put on her bandaids so I ask about the glasses on her head. She tells me, “Those don’t work. They just hold my hair back.” This strikes me so funny I roar with laughter and everyone else joins in. It’s all so absurd and normal.
Over the course of my five hours I am changed.
I have had to tell a woman that no, I cannot get her a pair of underwear because our clothing closet is closed on Saturdays. She takes it like a champ and says she’ll go to the store and work it out. I’m still ruminating on why I have 12 pair of underwear at my disposal and she has none.
I see a gunshot wound. I hear stories of destroyed childhoods that make me want to claw my eyes out. I learn some new slang words that I will not be trying out any time soon. I learn that joy is always attainable, if only for some moments. I learn that the truth doesn’t always come out in words. I learn that my unwillingness to call out wrongness has a cost.
Five hours. All that and more in just five hours.
After the place has cleared out and it’s just us volunteers I confess my occasional irritation with our friends. I don’t understand why they don’t all jump in the life raft we offer in the form of rehab, shelters, and job training. We talk some more over happenings of the day and then head our separate ways.
I drive to Kroger and purchase some pre-made sushi and on an impulse buy a peach pie. Once home my family asks about my day but I can’t talk about it right away. It’s too much to verbalize. I still have some processing to do and I’m tired.
I find myself in the kitchen mindlessly eating a pretty hefty portion of that impulsive peach pie. It seems that even I, good Christian woman that I am, can fall prey to mind-numbing addiction just from hearing their stories. What must it be like to live them?
The thing about my five hours is this: I know it will end.
No matter how heavy or chaotic or wonderful our time together is at the center I know where I’ll be sleeping. I know that I’ll have dinner. I know that the men in my life aren’t going to hit me. I will not be sexually exploited where I’m going. I am valued for more than my genitalia.
My friends live in crisis every second of every day.
“Stress will kill you,” one of them said to me in between phone calls searching for an apartment. “I have got to get off the streets.”
I nod my head like I know what she’s talking about.
But I don’t.
I mean, I know the feeling but not the reality.
We in the church don’t like to talk about class privilege, but that’s the thing separating our realities.
That’s a post for another day, though.
Today I’m content with my five hours.
This evening I sit and look at the sky as I always do. My five hours today has my friends on my heart as I gaze heavenward. I wonder where they are and if they’re safe. My prayer is that they don’t die; that they know they are loved.
I also give thanks for all the things that they teach me, for how patient they are with me. They treat me not as I am but as I ought to be, as I could be, and that leaves me changed. My friends see me as Jesus does, not as I am or the things that I do. How can I not learn from that?
Tonight I think of their names and faces and smile that I get to know them. I can’t remember the funniest joke I heard today, the one with the super naughty word. I look forward to getting to ask about it next time I’m down there.
I can’t wait for my next five hours.
Be brave, misfits. May you be blessed to know others who see you as you could be.