Smile Politely

Reality and resources

I had just finished leading worship at the campus church, was robed in my pastoral attire, my hands still warm from greeting my congregation, when I saw her. She sat across the room, far away from our gathering: baseball cap on her head and weariness in her eyes. Before her was a  glass of juice and a bit of cookie that she was putting into her mouth with a shaking hand.

I stopped. Inside my own head the internal debate began. It happens every time when a stranger in need walks through the doors of my church.

What do I do?

Me, side 1: We’re a church and we preach that God’s reign is where the hungry are fed, the homeless are housed, the destitute are helped. Go. What does she need?

Me, side 2: Wake up girl, we’re just a little tribe of people, mostly students, supported by a grant and a few other congregations. We can’t give money away to everyone who walks in the door. Besides, she probably has a story she’s used thousands of times.

With my head whirling from this banter, I walked up to her, sat down to at least listen to her story, gathering the priestly robes around me. What did these robes give me — protection or compassion? I’m not quite sure.

Me, side 1: Listen compassionately.

Me, side 2: Listen skeptically.

She began to speak, voice shaking along with her trembling hands. “I’m cold after spending the night on the streets. I tried to find a shelter, but all the shelters for women are full. I want to get back home. I left the house because my boyfriend was hitting me and I have no where to go. Please help. I’m pregnant. I want to get back to my family.”

Me, side 1: Hmm, not the usual story. Her eyes — these eyes hold the pain of heartache and the weariness of a soul. How do we help?

Me side 2: Sounds good, but we can’t help. We have to be clear. We support the institutions that are established to help. Send her to them. You have others to talk to, students to help.

But I couldn’t turn from her eyes. “Ma’am can you help? Someone gave me a bus pass to get to the main station, but I need $69 to buy a bus ticket home. I want to go home. My family will help me.” I was drawn by her quiet, simple response. I asked more questions and listened with wonder on how she survived. The sadness in her eye also held the determination of hope.

Me, side 1: Sixty-nine bucks. I think we can do that. There’s cash in the offering.

Me, side 2: We have rules. We can’t help everyone and once we open the door to this one, who knows what we happen. The word on the street gets around you know.

I kept looking. She was sitting on the very edge of her chair. And then she said, “I’m sorry I smell.” I hadn’t noticed that she smelled. She looked down, awkwardly, “I peed my pants in the night. The pregnancy makes it hard. See, I left in a hurry. I have nothing with me. Can you help?”

Me, side 1: This is not the normal message I hear. The vulnerability seems exposed. I’ll get the cash. Shame is so debilitating.

Me, side 2: Rules are rules. We can’t help everyone. Shame is so debilitating.

I sat with this for just a bit, yet it felt like hours. The debate in my brain was challenging and twisting. What should be a simple response of charity to someone in need became a battle of reality and resources. What should be a simple action of hospitality became struggle of shame within my own call as pastor and our own mission of church. I sat in robes of white. She sat in sweatpants soaked in urine.

What do I do?

Me, side 1: (A deep sigh) God, hold us all.

Me, side 2: (A deep sigh) God, hold us all.

The character of our faith is integrated in how we respond to the world, especially the most vulnerable. Yet, living into the practicalities of this principal is puzzling. Many have learned to work the system for advantage and their own gain. We grow tired responding again and again. Continued charity wears us down. Resources – physical and emotional – are depleted quickly.

Yet, there is one resource that re-generates itself. Justice.  Justice, which comes from charity, asking, “why?” and wondering what it is about this world that must change. Indeed, justice transforms the wider systemic issues that create the problem of hunger and need. Justice joins with others who long for change.

I got up. “Please wait here.” I said. “I’ll get the cash.” Then I took a deep breath.

The harder work lay ahead.


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