It takes heart to live in the 'hood which is ironic because the "soil" around here just naturally chokes out compassion.
A couple of weeks ago, a strange woman turned up on my doorstep. She looked decent so I hesitantly opened my door. We had talked for a few seconds before I realized the woman used to live across the street from me; that I had last seen her about 11 months earlier, that I had talked with her numerous times. I simply didn't recognize her at first.
She had a car that needed serious repair work, no gas money, no shelter, no job, and she also no longer had her little boy. She had lost everything; was sleeping in her car at night and had dropped from about a size 10 dress to a size 3.
She was never one to ask for anything at all. She was one who had grown up in foster care but who had read a lot and thought deeply about the type of upbringing she wanted for her own child. She cared deeply for her little son and carefully monitored his stages of development, deriving pleasure from each new skill that he acquired. She was determined that he would have a good life.
The woman who stood on my doorstep was not only childless, she was greatly subdued. She wasn't the confident person I had known just a year earlier. As I listened to her, the thought crossed my mind that life had beaten up on her.
I followed her to a gas station where I put some gas in her car and then I led her to a Christian community center where she received some food and a change of clothes and some basic necessities like tooth paste and shampoo. The director talked to her compassionately yet directly. He verbally walked her through her options and told her that everything depended on whether she would follow up on his advice.
She never called us or the director; never came back the next day when the center was fully operational to connect with people who could help her overcome any addictions and also find work. I was saddened by this but not surprised. In the brief time I talked to her, my gut instinct said that she hadn't hit bottom yet.
Whenever I think of her now, I say a prayer for her, asking God to watch over her where ever she is.
She didn't say much while we were at the center, but one thing she did say has haunted me ever since. When the director asked her point blank where she was sleeping, she quietly said, "In my car." She sat there for a few heartbeats without saying anything more and then added, "Sometimes it's scary."
I had never thought about it.
Sometimes it's scary...
Today I was driving down a major thoroughfare near my home, heading to the airport to pick up my husband, knowing that I had cut it close on time, afraid that I might be a little late. I hadn't gotten to the freeway yet when I saw something that arrested my attention: a young girl standing on a street corner, casually dressed, with a small bag at her feet. I've seen women being pimped in this area although the police tend to put a stop to it pretty quickly. This girl, however, wasn't a prostitute.
I also glimpsed an adult man sitting under a shade tree about three feet away from her. So while she was facing the main road, just standing quietly, not hitching a ride or anything; this man was seated on the ground away from the main road. I tried to tell myself that he was probably just her dad; that she was probably waiting for a friend to pick her up and that he was sitting there, waiting to see that she got off safely.
Only, his face was turned away from her and the thoroughfare. Plus, he was holding one hand up next to his face, shielding even his side profile from view.
It just didn't seem right.
So I had an internal argument with myself. Part of me said to go on; that it was probably innocuous.
But the part of me that said it wasn't good became so insistent that I finally pulled onto a parking lot, did a u-turn, and drove back the way I had come. Just in case...
When I passed the couple the second time, I could see that she was probably older than I originally thought - maybe 17 or 18. She was slender and petite. The guy was tall and looked to be middle-aged, weather beaten. They were both standing on the sidewalk facing each other. Her arms were bent upward, her hands even with her chest, and both palms were facing outward towards the man - as if she had just shoved him or as if she were trying to ward him off. It was impossible to tell what was going on. After I passed them, I saw the man step off the curb and into the nearest traffic lane where he proceeded to wildly wave both arms, trying to flag someone down. But no one stopped. It looked crazy to me so I pulled into the parking lot of a private Christian school and dialed 911. I gave the operator (what turned out to be) a semi-accurate description of the girl's clothes - I hadn't concentrated on their clothing, just the location and what they were doing.
The operator said they would send out a police unit. I wasn't sure what to do next. I thought that if I drove past them a third time in the space of about 8 minutes, that it might spook the man and they would run off before the police could get there and check out the situation. So I waited a minute or two but I really had to get to the airport. So I got on the thoroughfare once more and hoped they wouldn't notice my car. As I came upon the couple for the third time, I saw that they were both on the sidewalk facing each other. The man was just raising his hands away from the area of her head and so I assumed he had been hitting her. It wasn't until later that I realized I never actually saw him lay a hand on her. He took a few steps away from her and then began walking in a small, tight circular pattern on the sidewalk. I could tell that he was really agitated and wondered if he was high.
As I drew even with the girl, I could see that tears were just streaming down her face and that her expression was anguished. I felt strongly that I needed to stop and let her get into my car, that I needed to get her to safety. But I was simply too afraid to do it.
So I pulled out my cell phone and dialed 911 again, this time giving them a more accurate description of what the girl was wearing, explaining that the couple was walking in the direction of a local high school. When I added that I thought the man had been hitting her, I started crying.
They assured me that a patrol car was on its way and in fact, about that time I saw one pass me.
The last I saw of them in my rear view mirror, they were running/walking in the direction of the school, the girl in the lead.
And that's it.
End of story.
A sidewalk vignette on a sunny weekday morning in a business section of the 'hood.
If I had seen the girl face to face, would I have seen signs of aging that indicated that this "girl" was not a girl at all but rather a woman, possibly a druggie who had the shape of a young girl because drugs were already whittling her down to nothing?
Like my former neighbor?
Was she even being mistreated or was this simply an ongoing drama, engaged in willfully by both parties where both parties could be abusive?
I don't know and I doubt I ever will.
All I know is that I cried the rest of the way to the airport, even as I wondered why I was so affected by a non-sequential glimpse into the lives of total strangers, people who meant nothing to me.
But the truth is, that girl represents my neighbor and all the other women in areas like this who are easy prey on the streets, sometimes giving as good as they get, sometimes, yes, even tough as nails and high as kites, if you want to use cliches.
But they don't start out that way. They don't start out tough as nails.
They start out as young girls with high hopes and then somewhere along the way, life beats it out of them.
It's easy to lose heart in the 'hood. Like weeds around an abandoned flower garden, something about the 'hood just naturally chokes out compassion. The rule of thumb becomes, "Just mind your own business."
And God who knows everything, knows I've done my share of "minding my own business". Seriously.
Today, however, thanks to the memory of a shell of a woman who turned up on my doorstep two weeks ago, I didn't just pass on by. I remembered the words, "Sometimes it's scary" and I decided to stop and take a second look.
Whether help was needed or not, I'm grateful that God prompted me to do a u-turn right in the middle of a busy day.
Sometimes I think He just wants us to stop and take in what He sees all the time.
Because those are the things that are on His heart and so those are the things that should be on my heart.
Tonight, would you pray for two young women who are almost certainly somewhere out on these mean streets?
And for all their sisters as well....?