Sunday afternoon, Mary reported that she had gone to the Baptist Sunday school service that morning, and was unable to talk to the pastor who was gone, as well as a man named John who she knew who was connected with benevolence.
Monday, I got a call from John (Mary had mentioned a man named John who she had tried to contact during Sunday school at the church, but he hadn’t been there.)
He told me that he was at the morning Sunday school Mary had said she attended, that he would have noticed her, and that she had not been there. A red flag went to half-mast with my hand on the rope waiting to bring it back down.
John was very familiar with Mary, and told of her presence in the community for over 30 years. Mary had grown up in the area, and people in various local churches knew her. John and I talked at length about Mary and the homeless problem in general. Apparently, Mary was very resourceful at surviving, but had not become desperate enough to come to any change, that she had not actually “hit bottom.”
Tuesday the hotel stay was at an end, and enlightened by John’s information, I arrived at the hotel to inform her that we needed to be out by 11:00. To our surprise, she had put up her young niece who had just gotten out of jail in the room, and also had one man who knocked on the door for help in filling out some type of paperwork. Although I’d not thought to establish any rules for being in the hotel (aside from not allowing “her kittens,” that she had befriended at her shelter,) I was a bit perturbed at this. I had previously mentioned to Kelsey the risk of putting someone up, particularly when there was drug history. Because of her apparent sincerity, had not been a concern, but then what did I really know for certain?
Mary protested, saying she couldn’t go back to the tent, didn’t know what to do, and made several mentions of “just ending it all.” I told her that while I didn’t think that was the best thing to do, that it was her choice.
I won’t get into her niece’s part in the discussion except to say that she expressed frustration with the “system.” Both she and Mary were very defensive.
Our conversation went right up till checkout time at11:00 with Mary in apparent despair, not wanting to take up my offers involvement with the local churches, or offering any solutions of her own. But at about two minutes until 11:00, she thought to call a friend who gave her permission to temporarily stay at his apartment in a fairly small house of four units. She seemed greatly relieved at this answer to her desperation. We drove her there (it was immediately across the street from the Baptist church,) and we said goodbye. I did leave her my phone number as well as show her a few of the text messages from the friends who had offered suggestions and resources to encourage her that she was not without options and that she could contact me in the future. Later I found that she had stayed there for several nights and then gone back to her tent.
Over the next several days, she told conflicting versions of the willingness of the landlord to accept her presence in the apartment. The landlord’s toleration curiously seemed to vary each day.
Christ told us to be both innocent and shrewd. He told the disciples to both go, and be prepared to leave. To me, conundrums. But as I think about it, He was all about conundrums
Wednesday and Thursday, I was out of town, coming back Friday. Mary called me several times while out of town, delighted that God had finally answered her prayers and that the brother she had not spoken with in a long time and his wife had agreed to let her stay with them. She said that she only needed the gas money to give to a friend who was going to drive her the 45 minutes to the brother’s house. Without any naivety on my part, we decided to meet when I got back.
I drove back from Austin and met her at the parking lot outside Grandys and gave her the gas money. The photo at the beginning of the first post was taken then.
I was tired from my Austin drive and left her to meet her transportation that was to arrive shortly.
The next day, she called again reporting that her friend had not shown up, and that she was again in need. She had used the money to stay at a hotel.
When the man who earlier and promised to put her up for additional nights at the hotel had failed to call back, a red flag had gone to half-mast. Now the flag had not only gone to the top, but was removed from the pole.
I haven’t heard from Mary since then.
It’s a real shame, as all of us know that there will always be persons who take advantage of any system. Hedge fund managers hide fraudulent transfers. Televangelists project sincerity.
It does raise perhaps an unanswerable question of how to truly winnow sincerity and deceit.
And if sincere, the best approach. How do we tell the difference between providing and enabling? How to assess our own ability to give. Should I risk safety? Can I establish a balance of time between my own needs and the needs of others? Will my carpet be ruined if I adopt one of those puppies from the “In the Eye’s of the Angel” commercial?
I have no doubt of Mary’s need. I saw it. I have pictures of it. There will always be Mary’s that cross our path. There will always be the poor. And there are those who will always be of need in ways that in fact make them poor.
John (the Baptist) who I had met through all this, had established a ministry on Sunday mornings the in the local mass transit parking lot that reaches out to the poor by way of a short Bible reading followed by discussion. After the discussion, they offer food and clothing.
He had invited Kelsey and I up on a Sunday morning and we went. Afterwards, we both thought we would go back. There were about fifteen or so poor people there. The sun had just risen and it really impressed on me the feeling of an Easter sunrise service.
Yesterday, Mary did call me and inform me that her boyfriend was at a local hospital with an aneurysm. She didn’t ask for anything, but did pause from time to time. I expressed my concern for his health and left it there.
That night I got a call from a follower of the blog, recognizing Mary who frequented the local food pantry she volunteered at. She voiced concern about involvement with Mary who had at times in the past, clearly worked the system and at times, displayed violence. The caller and I had a great discussion about a problem that we certainly haven’t been the first to wrestle with.
The theme of this blog is how we as Christians act, or rather, don’t act out our faith. Sometimes that’s clear, and sometimes not. Sometimes Christ was clear, and sometimes not.
But that lack of clarity shouldn’t be a reason to not act at all. In the most puzzling circumstances, there should be at the very least, a tension of some kind. A desire to solve a problem even while understanding that there is no apparent solution. But a tension that at the very least, defeats complacency.
Too many of us use the admonition that “the poor will always be with us,” to relieve us of our obligation to “give to the poor,” “remember the poor,” even “sell our possessions and give them to the poor.”
And an experience like the one with Mary can make it too easy to harden our attitude toward the poor, perhaps categorize and ignore them, to use a bad experience to discourage us from experiencing their experience and atrophy.
To figure out just what that means for each one of us is not a very easy trick. But at the very least, shouldn’t we try to be like the children who came to Him, for don’t children love to figure out the mesmerizing trick of the magician, even while the magician hides his hand?