The first time she came to the church door I trusted her, I’m not sure why but I did. I didn’t believe her story, with all its many loopholes and catastrophes, but I trusted her anyway, believed in her.
Her car broke down on the Jersey turnpike. She ended up in West Philly at a cousin’s house but then got kicked out. She tried a few shelters and government assistance but they also kicked her out. A thousand dollars awaited her in Jersey, if only she could get back there and get it.
“I can’t give you any money from the church but I can pray with you, as small as that may seem,” I told her. To my chagrin she accepted. Not that I didn’t want to help her but I never prayed with a stranger before and didn’t really know what to say. As I walked her through the building to my office I suddenly felt incredibly ill equipped.
“Can I put my hand on your shoulder?” I asked, not quite knowing what else to do.
She nodded. I prayed. Each word sounded dumber than the last but when I opened my eyes she had tears in hers.
“Sister-friend that was beautiful girl. Just what I needed.” She went on to tell me how she was six month’s sober and trying to get back on her feet. “Sisters like you are really the only people I can trust in this world. Women are the only ones who understand.”
She asked for tea. I made some for her as we sat and talked. She asked for food. I gave her the apple and pistachios in my bag. “It’s not much,” I stammered, debating whether I should go buy her an actual meal somewhere.
“This is perfect! Do you want to split the apple with me? I don’t want to take all your food,” she explained, grabbing a small handful of the pistachios. After about an hour and several phone calls to her mom, I walked her to the door.
“I hope you are able to find your way back to Jersey.”
She smiled and hugged me. “Thank you sister.” And with that she headed down Baltimore Avenue.
The situation left me feeling strange. In some ways I felt good that I had helped her, in other ways I felt bad that I couldn’t do more, in still other ways I wondered how much of what she told me was true. I wondered if any of that really mattered.
When I took the job at West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship I thought I knew what I was in for: basic office administration, coordination with other groups in the building, correspondence with church members. It hadn’t dawned on me at the time just how much more this job requires.
A church building, especially in the city, represents a place of refuge and hope for many people. I never know who will show up at my door and what their needs or requests my be. While I’m getting stronger at denying people money and watching out for my own safety (some of you may remember my post about Simon), I realize that I have no idea how to handle the variety of hurts and problems people bring to my doorstep.
The woman returned this week. This time a man was with her. “Can I come in and pray for a few minutes?” I felt really uncomfortable but let her in, explaining that I had to wait with her in the chapel while she prayed.
The man she was with proceeded to hit on me and pry into my life while we waited for her. He said he knew her from the neighborhood. “I thought she lived in Jersey?” I asked him. He shrugged.
After they left I felt angry. I felt like she had somehow violated my trust, lying to me about where she lived, coming back to my building with a random man. I felt like all the “good” I did for her was meaningless.
I hate that I feel this way. I hate that I feel like I need to pick and choose what and who to believe. I hate that I have to worry about getting harassed by strangers at my own job and church. I hate that I feel so ill equipped. But I love hearing people’s stories (as true or false as they may be). I love feeling like I can make some sort of difference, even if it is nothing more than a prayer or an apple. I love the possibility hope brings.
As winter approaches I know more people will come to my door, seeking something, anything, to help them on their life journeys. I know that at this moment I feel too empty and jaded to offer them anything more than a forced smile and a hollow prayer. But maybe, somehow, that is enough for now.