We meet in the foyer to the building where I work. She’s about my height and has short brown hair, like me. She clutches a large textbook and keeps tapping her foot. No name tag, I notice. It’s safe to assume she doesn’t work here but had instead been in one of the local agencies’ offices.
Together, we look at the ever-increasing rain.
“It’s really coming down,” she says.
“Sure is.” I’m on my way to lunch. I have a small umbrella, but it’s no match for the weather.
“I’m headed to Northwest Hospital. I have a job but I’m taking the bus.”
I smile at her, reassuring her that I’m not judgmental. And I make a snap decision. My gut tells me it’s okay.
“Come on, I’ll give you a ride,” I say. The bus stop is only two blocks away.
“Thanks!”she exclaims, and follows me out to my car.
“What do you do at Northwest?” I ask after pulling out of the parking lot.
“I’m manager of the coffee shop. My husband and I went through a rough period a while back and lived in a motel. But we’re doing good now.”
I glance at her book. “Are you in classes, too?”
“No, I’m almost through with this program–” she gestures toward the building we just left–“where I have to check in weekly. But I want to take classes and become an X-ray technician.”
I nod. She’s so eager to tell me about her life, both her unpleasant past and future hopes. I wonder how many people she can talk to–people who won’t condemn her or make her feel less than human because she’d once been homeless.
Do I judge her? I ask myself. Every weekday morning, I walk into my job with a refugee resettlement agency and pass by numerous homeless folks. Some of them are mentally ill and can’t hold a job. Others need guidance or assistance from the social service providers in the building. But every person has a story.
It hits me as Lisa talks: in the three months I’ve been working at CFS, I haven’t stopped to really engage anyone. I smile and say, “hello,” but I keep my distance.
If I’m honest, I have to admit I’m afraid. Afraid I won’t know what to say. Afraid of–what? That their neediness will rub off on me? Maybe. I tend to justify my actions because the work I’m doing helps folks who haven’t had a home in years. Some have spent whole lifetimes in refugee camps and have seen the horrors of genocide, rape and starvation firsthand.
I wonder what horrors Lisa has seen. Plenty, I’m sure. And I wonder, what situations have I escaped because I have my relatives–both sides–as a loving safety net? Because I had the good fortune to be born middle class? To have a college education paid for by a generous family?
As I glance in Lisa’s direction, she moves her hand. I can see now that she’s holding a Beth Moore volume on Paul. I pull up to the bus station. “Here we are.”
“You’re welcome. By the way, Beth Moore’s my favorite.”
“I love her!” she says, getting out. “I’ve done all her studies.”
She shuts the door and walks off.
Me too, I think. Me too.
By Dena Dyer, Mother Inferior.