On Sundays I go to worship service in a space that has beautiful floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows. For the past few weeks, while we’re singing songs of praise to God and while Pastor Mark is preaching, I’ve watched a man outside the stained glass window. His face is not visible, just his outline as he sits in the cold, huddled against the building. For a long time this morning he sat motionless. Through a golden yellow crescent-shaped section of the stained glass, I could see the shape of his downcast head. The golden crescent looked like a quarter moon. A quarter moon with a man in its center. Eventually he got up, brushed the dirt off his clothes, folded his blankets, put on his backpack and walked away. His routine has been the same every week. He must be able to hear us singing. I wonder if he can hear the pastor’s voice. He must have a sad story to tell, our man in the moon.
And once again I thought about my childhood friend Sarrie. I wrote about Sarrie a couple of summers ago after I spoke with a homeless woman in Georgetown. Here’s the piece I wrote.
Life on the Street
There’s been a code-red air alert here for the past few days—all that heat and trapped ozone makes breathing difficult, even for healthy people. The media have been relaying requests that people take the public transportation to cut down on car exhaust. I was driving on the beltway, trying to recall the last time I rode a city bus. And I began feeling guilty for driving my car and got to thinking about whether I’m just a snob, too elitist to take the bus.
Karen, whom I met yesterday, probably would be happy to have the money to take a bus. She’d probably feel fortunate even to have a reason, any destination that would put her on a bus.
She didn’t look bad from a distance. She was sitting on a bench outside the C&O Canal headquarters in Georgetown, smoking cigarettes and having an animated, angry conversation with the sky. It’s hard to tell, but she’s probably in her late 30s, slim with short brown hair. She was wearing heavy black biker boots, jeans, and a heavy shrunken sweater, despite the intense heat. The jeans were too big, rolled at the waist, but still sagging so much below her hips that the skin below her naval was completely exposed, and if one were to look closely, I’m sure her pubic hair was visible. I didn’t look that closely. She didn’t make much of an effort to pull up the pants.
I was with a group of people playing music and having a picnic lunch. No one in our group of musicians took offense when Karen came to eat the food we had on the table. We actually offered her more food, encouraged her. I sat and talked with her while she ate. Her body odor was foul and her hands were filthy. She told me her father was a Rockefeller and that her mother had been raped. She repeated these “facts” several times. Someone had stolen her clothes and she was trying to get to the consulate to get a passport so she could get back home. I asked her if she was an American and she said, no, she was from the Middle East. I doubt that was true because she seemed like she could have grown up next door to me in white-bread America. She mumbled something about 9-ll and the drug wars. I told her that I would try to come back soon with some clothes for her. I gave her twenty dollars and she quickly stuffed the cash in her pocket and left. And I thought about Sarrie.
Sarrie was my childhood friend. She was brilliant, beautiful, with a gift for drawing. She seemed to have it all. She was the only daughter of a Jewish couple who miraculously survived the Nazis and emigrated from Poland after World War II. Her father had been an engineer before the war and, in this country, found worked as a television repairman. She was their future. But in young adulthood her life got derailed by schizophrenia and she disappeared. I saw Sarrie in Karen’s face.
There are many people, men and women like Karen, living on the streets. I don’t want to sound like Pollyanna, but I wonder what Jesus would do. No kidding—shouldn’t we all strive simply to be kind and compassionate? It doesn’t burden me to talk to Karen, to humanize her, pray for her, maybe give her something to make her life easier. She enriched me. Sadly, she enriched me because I put Sarrie in her place and I felt that in a small way I was reconnecting with Sarrie.
And I thought that there, but by the grace of God, go I. I don’t want to be arrogant, throwing her loose change like a pampered suburbanite. But what else can I do? How can I approach it other than based on who I am and by doing it from my heart? She did touch me. She is not just another faceless person who is mentally ill—seriously mentally ill—and living on the street. It’s so dangerous for someone like Karen. She could disappear, die tomorrow and maybe no one will ever know. I’m sure she has family members somewhere who are heartbroken over what has happened to her. And in her confusion she probably has chosen to live on the street because there is not adequate help for her. It’s a mess. I ask God how he can allow such things to happen. He doesn’t answer.