Unexpected visitors are not such a strange thing for me. It is a part of what I do.
I got a call that there was a woman downstairs, upset and crying. Again, not an unusual scenario for me. I was preparing for noonday Eucharist and was delayed from going straight down. The call came again, “Could I come down quick?” I headed down thinking I could handle this quickly. Frankly, most of the crying I encounter is for effect in order to achieve a scam. Scams are not hard to spot and, while I try to be courteous, I dispatch scams fairly quickly.
Tom and Karen were distributing food in the entry way and told me she was outside. I walked out and found the women sitting on the bench by the door holding hands with one of the older, African American clients of our pantry and commodity programs. The young women was sobbing and the older woman was gently consoling her. A desperate older woman consoling an even more desperate younger woman, one black, one white. I immediately knew this was a scene of human compassion and grace—no scam here. “We were just praying,” the older woman said to me almost apologetically, me all dressed as the official holy person. “Please,” I replied, “keep praying, it is a good thing.” The younger woman looked at me and asked if I was a priest. “Can we talk?” she asked.
Because of construction, I have few places to offer for private conversation. I suggested the bench was about as private as I had right then. The older woman excused herself and I sat beside the woman as she continued to sob.
She is a tiny person, 100 or so pounds, maybe 5 feet tall. She has long, brownish/auburny/grayish hair all tied in a knot on her head. Her skin is weathered and her arms are splotched with scars and sores. I think I see some injection scarring. She is a bit grimy and has the gaunt look of homelessness. Her eyes are red from crying. I am not sure how old she is, though I later find out she recently turned 42—I had guessed older before she told me.
I am going to miss Eucharist.
“I am from Dayton, Ohio, and I came here to get clean . . .”
A long story unfolded. Spoiler alert—by her own admission she destroyed her life and lost everything important to her by making poor choices, choices she knows to be bad but she cannot help making them.
“I am so humiliated . . . I am not like this . . . I was raised in a house. We had bathrooms and beds and everything . . . I know what is right . . . but I just cannot do right . . . I have to panhandle on the streets; it is awful and I am so embarrassed . . . If I died, nobody would even care . . . I am so alone . . . I just want my momma to come hold me and make it better . . . But I am not suicidal; I am too chicken for that. If I could just go to sleep and not wake up, I would be okay with that. There would just be nothingness where I once was . . .”
Part 1: She became addicted to alcohol around 13 or 14. She was the oldest of three, the only daughter, and she could never get it right. She moved around a lot and had trouble making friends. Way too early, she disappeared into her own oblivion of alcohol and later drugs. She managed for awhile and even stayed clean throughout two pregnancies. Her husband was abusive and violent to her and her two sons. She escaped him and went back to live close to her parents in Dayton. Initially, she had a good job, stayed away from drugs and alcohol, and was doing good raising her two sons. About ten years ago she unexpectedly lost her job. She went from $30/hour to $8/hour and life became desperate. In Ohio, heroin is the epidemic drug and has been for years. Struggling and overwhelmed by the impossibility of raising two sons and surviving on $8/hour, she fell deeply into the heroin abyss. Repeated attempts to clean up failed. She came to Kansas City in February because she heard there was a good program here. Initially she was successful, but eventually fell in with the local demon—methamphetamine aka “crystal meth.” Two months ago she left treatment, became homeless, and the descent into this new abyss became unrelenting. Her youngest son turned 19 last week and she had nothing to offer him. Her backpack stolen at some homeless camp, she lost everything including her phone. She could not call her “baby boy” on his birthday. This was an awakening for her.
Part 2: She is a military BRAT. She was born at Landstuhl Hospital at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. For all her life, she moved every three years. She formed no lasting relationships and moved when she was a senior in high school, losing whatever connections she had from her high school days. Her family “landed” in Dayton, Ohio only because it was the last place her father was stationed and her parents liked it there. She had no connections or friends there. She expressed to me a sense of desperate loneliness that followed her all her life. Growing up military left her with no support system or life-long friendships. She felt terribly alone all the time.
Part 3: She asked me for nothing. At one point, she mentioned she was hungry. One of our volunteers happened by and I asked him to bring one of the Pantry “homeless bags” out to me. He brought one right out. I recalled seeing a “self-heating” stew box in these packs and was curious. I inventoried the contents of the food bag for her. “No” to nuts, “no” to hot-dogs, “yes” to the M&Ms, “yes” to a piece of bread. I showed her the stew box. She was curious too. “How does it heat itself?” she asked. As she continued to tell me her story, I prepared the self-heating potato and bbq meat stew for her. I won’t spoil the magic of the “self-heating” stew, but she gobbled down a hot, steaming stew occasionally reporting how good it was. I did miss the Eucharist in the church, but I think we shared a holy meal at the entry way of the church.
Part 4: Mostly I was just a listener today. She was processing out-loud and had things she needed to say and hear herself say. I just helped her focus on what she was saying. I encouraged her to know that the future was yet to be written and now, because she had crashed into her own wall of despair, she had an opportunity to write the future in a different way. We considered the good choices she needs to make to move forward in a better way. I assured her she was not alone in this. God, incarnated by the community of St.Paul’s, was with her as she journeyed forward. I gave her my card and said I would be her friend and supporter during this effort to turn her life. We defined a plan of next steps and she struck out planning to enter the detox facility a few blocks from the church or at Truman. She seemed resolute and ready. She wants to go home and make things work with her boys. She knows she must be clean, sober, and steady if she wants to return and be accepted. I pray she is up to the hard work ahead of her. I pray we can be servant to her along the way.