2:00 pm. I’m sitting alone in my office at the church when I hear a knock at the door. Expecting the admin assistant from one of the other churches in the building I call out, “Come in.”
Another familiar face appears, one I do not expect. “Simon,” a homeless man that often attends morning services at my church enters, asking for money or tokens to get to Center City. He’s a little more drunk than usual, probably because I’m used to seeing him at 9:00 am.
“I’m sorry, you know I can’t give you money from the church,” I tell him. “I have some food here if you want it but I can’t give out money or tokens.”
“I won’t tell anyone!” He assures me, becoming agitated. “I swear on the Bible!” His hand slams onto my desk.
“Simon, I cannot give you money. I can give you food but that is it.”
We go back and forth for a few more moments before he finally caves. “Alright, alright. Can I at least get a hug?”
Now Simon is known for trying to hug women so this request is nothing new to me. Knowing his hugs are prolonged and inappropriate and that he will most likely try to kiss my shoulder as well, I decline, offering him a handshake over my desk instead. Rejecting it, he comes around my desk, going in for a hug as I sit in my chair. Immediately I stand up, pushing his arms away.
“Simon, I told you not to hug me,” I tell him firmly as he pushes his body towards mine. We struggle back and forth, him leaning his body and face toward mine, me two-hand pushing his chest and body away.
The stronger and more forceful my words and motions, the stronger his counter motions become. My mind races: Should I call someone? The police? What if he doesn’t leave? I need to get him out of here!
Finally I am able to half drag, half guide him out onto the front steps. “Simon, you need to leave the building. You cannot be in the building when you are acting this way.”
“I’m sorry,” he slurs, “I’m really drunk right now. I’m sorry for getting fresh with you back there. I’m really into white women,” he continues, “You’re so beautiful.”
“Simon, that is not appropriate. You need to leave. You can’t be here unless you are sober.”
He ignores my request, instead asking when I’ll be at the church again, telling me that he got his approach wrong and that’s why I was rejecting his advances. He begs me to talk to him on the steps but I turn and lock myself in the office. Immediately my body goes limp. I shakily dial the pastor’s number as tears stream down my face.
I didn’t expect this to be a trigger moment for me but it was. Even though I didn’t think he was going to rape or physically harm me, the unwanted advances and blatant rejection of my commands to stop left me feeling violated and small. Thoughts of the rape flooded over me. And I cried.
The sadness was soon replaced with anger. Simon received many second and third chances over the last year and I’d always stood up for him, always given him grace. But this? This was over the line. He knew what he was doing and he knew it was wrong. And that made me furious. What if it happened to another woman alone in this building, someone who could not so easily and forcefully reject him?
Some people said I should call the police but in my soul I knew I couldn’t. As someone who studied and embraced community processes and restorative justice I knew that if ever I needed to live out these values it was here and now.
So I’m setting myself up for the conversations, be it with church leaders, community members, even Simon. It’s hard, it’s a bit scary but it’s what I know in my soul I have to do. And, truth be told, I’m a little excited to be part of a restorative process, as unpredictable as it can be.
I know that there are only so many second and third chances we can give Simon before we have to say enough is enough. Being community to one another is not an easy thing. It is hard to hold hospitality and safety in both hands, especially when it feels like you have to choose one or the other. But I have faith in my community and in our ability to hold this tension with love. And whatever happens in the end I pray that restoration can bring healing and healing, peace.