One thing is that this water has created a place for encounter between two worlds. Perhaps talking about two worlds is too clumsy a way to talk about people; everyone who serves and everyone who is served comes with an individual story. But in a general way, we can talk about one world of “middle class people” with security and resources, and the other of the “needy” without those basics.
Our needy fall into two general demographics. First, there are poor people trying to make ends meet. Many are new Americans struggling to get a foothold in this “land of opportunity.” There are people with limited income, homeless vets, people with mental illnesses.
The other main group is people on the streets because of drug use. You can read on their faces the length of time they have been living exposed to the all the harshness of outside living. Sometimes people will approach the door, and we are not sure whether they are going to turn out to be volunteers or homeless people. Others appear gaunt and hardened by months or years on the street, the spark of life confused and dimmed by addiction.
God Interrupts Our Lives
We hope that our water, the many of the encounters it fosters, and the kindness and respect extended may serve as moments of God breaking into the lives of people in this harsh city. Often, people will express gratitude for the water. In response, sometimes I’ll say, “We wish we could do more; I feel bad that you have to be out here.” What I am looking for is a stronger interruption to break through the resistance that comes with addiction or hopelessness. Perhaps as we spend more time here, we will learn how to do this. For now the simple signs of water and conversation are our tools. Small interruptions can have a cumulative effect.
This week a man, Billy, stopped by our house. He had been a regular at the door for water, food, and usually with a story about how he needed “just five dollars” to get to his sister’s house in suburban Philadelphia. He also repeatedly asked to use a phone, because he had met someone who was going to take him to a rehab program somewhere. This went on for months, and we could see the toll his drug use and living on the streets were taking on him. He even showed up some days with bruises on his face and cuts on his bald head. In all of our encounters he was polite and easy to engage, even though we knew he was stretching the truth, trying to get by.
He stopped by to see us because he was doing better. Three months ago he had been picked up by the police and had been in jail. He described this as saving his life. He got away from the danger on the street, he was able to detox from drugs and alcohol. And he told us he feels like he is headed in a new direction. God interrupted, and Billy has responded.
It meant so much that Billy went out of his way to tell us that he appreciated the support we gave via the hospitality extended by the volunteers and the Oblates. It means so much to have evidence that we too are cooperating with God’s grace in these ordinary encounters at our door.