Something you realize quickly when working for a church, is that a church – the physical building itself, as well as the more intangible associations of a religious community – tend to attract people in need. Almost from my first day, I found myself answering the door for folks who needed help with bus fare to get to an interview or job, with finding something to eat, or who just needed to use the bathroom or charge their phone for awhile. Folks have come in to use the shower, or just get warm. I don’t see most of these people more than once or twice. We offer what help we can – food, a cup of coffee, bus tokens, a few dollars, the use of our facilities – and they go on their way.
Early this summer, a young woman approached me as I was leaving work. She was petite, rail-thin, and had one of those faces that made it impossible to tell how old she was. Her voice was like sandpaper, and she introduced herself as Natalie, using overly formal language that was far more reminiscent of someone who grew up in the antebellum south than in Kensington, where I would later learn she was from. She explained that she’d just been released from the hospital and needed bus fare – this is actually a really common ask in Germantown, which, in my more insensitive moments, makes me imagine the 23 bus as a New Yorker style cartoon scene chock-a-block with people in hospital gowns – and could I please help her out? I happen to keep a lot of change in my car, and gave her what I had. She thanked me and left, but returned a few minutes later with a young man she introduced as her husband, CJ. He seemed shy, but thanked me as well. We chatted for a bit, they told me a little about themselves, and I told them I worked here at GMC.
Eventually they went on their way, and I went home. But for some reason this particular interaction stuck with me more than others I’d had in the nearly three years I’d been working at the church. Maybe it was the timid way Natalie had asked if she could hug me before she left, or the way CJ kept repeating, “I like your attitude,” in a way that ominously suggested he’d had a good deal of experience with attitudes much different than mine. Several weeks went by, and I found myself wondering about them. If they’d found a place to stay. If Natalie had worked out her insurance situation to get the medication she needed.
They came by more and more over the summer. Usually they just needed a place to sit for awhile. Some water or a snack. Natalie has several health issues, and sometimes has a hard time getting her medication, so I would walk to Rite-Aid with her to talk to the pharmacist or help her with her co-pay. I got used to seeing them, and they got used to stopping by, sometimes just to check in and say hello. CJ was pretty quiet most days, but Natalie opened up a lot about their lives. She told me about the abandoned building they’d been staying where they’d built a tenuous peace with the cadre of possums and raccoons who also lived there, about how they couldn’t go to a shelter because they weren’t legally married (she’s still married to her first husband, whom she can’t find), and, eventually, she admitted that she sometimes turns to illegal drugs when she can’t find other ways of coping.
“You’re not a dumb woman,” she said to me one afternoon. “I know you know I get high, but I wanted to tell you myself. Because I think it’s important to be honest with people.”
Just recently, CJ came by the church to ask if I’d seen Natalie. She’d already been missing for a few days. He didn’t stay long, said he wanted to “stay on her trail”, but asked me to let her know he was looking for her if she turned up. I spent the next few days being a little more attentive as I drove through the neighborhood on my way to and from work, or on my walk from the church to the Meetinghouse. I kept hoping to see her, but also kept imagining all the terrible possibilities of what could have happened. She’s a young woman, with mental health and addiction issues living on the street. We’ve all read a thousand stories and statistics about people just like her, and they aren’t good. I also prayed. Every time she popped into my mind, I said a quick prayer: ”Please let her be okay, please let her turn up, please let her be alive…” After nearly a week, the doorbell rang and she was standing on the steps, smiling, despite her black eye and split lip. She’d been roughed up, she said, and had to leave the neighborhood for awhile, but she was okay. It’s by no means a happy ending, but I was relieved and grateful.
Although I’ve always been the type to see someone with a “Please help” sign and offer some spare change, or a bottle of water on a hot day, working at GMC and being part of this community (both the church community, and the Germantown neighborhood) has provided an incredible opportunity. Natalie and CJ are not just people I once gave money to, or bought a sandwich for. They are people I genuinely care about and am glad to see. They are people I wish fervently that I could do more for. I feel a responsibility for them now, and in a lot of ways, that sense of responsibility has expanded beyond this couple I know and care about. It has also helped me recognize my own incredible privilege. I often struggle to pay my bills, and I have to make difficult financial decisions almost daily, but I do not have to fear for my physical safety, or worry that the house I’m staying in will be sealed shut by the city while I’m asleep inside of it.
Natalie told me that it felt good for her to know that there was someone who cared about them, and who she could check in with once in awhile. It gives her a sense of security in a very insecure world to know there’s a building she can come to, with a face she recognizes, just to say hello, here’s where I’m going to be today. But it still amazes her that she’s welcome to do that. “It must be a Mennonite thing,” she’s said more than once. “This church is truly an exceptional place.”
Though Germantown considers itself a single community, we are all individuals with our own backgrounds, and therefore any opinions expressed in this blog should be read as the opinions of the author, and not the official position of GMC. We encourage positive discourse, so all comments will be moderated before posting.
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