I had an unpleasant encounter this morning on my way to the church where I volunteer with a breakfast program for the homeless. It was an encounter that left me feeling shaken and unsettled.
It was dark when I left home this morning and the streets were quiet. Not many people are out at 6:30 on a Saturday morning. I started out on my usual route towards the streetcar. Half a block from home I noticed a man walking up the street towards me. I could tell he was agitated. He moved his arms erratically at his side, like he was striking out at some imaginary person next to him. I knew that I should get out his way so I moved over to the edge of the sidewalk, practically walking along the curb. I thought he would just pass me by. But instead he darted towards me, muttered something about “white woman” (he was a black man), spat on my face, swore at me, and then took off.
For a second I froze, shocked at what had just occurred. And then I ran. A bus was parked at the end of the block so I ran up to it and got on. The driver was already on the phone with the police, having just had a similar encounter with the same man. I saw the spittle all over the window that shields the driver. When the police arrived, they were very kind and compassionate. They took a statement from me, offered me medical services, and even gave me a ride to the church so I wouldn’t be too late for volunteering. They were compassionate towards me but they were also compassionate towards the man who had caused the incidents. They were concerned about finding him and getting him into a treatment program for mental illness (I think he was known to them) rather than being concerned about punishment.
Despite the kindness of the police, I arrived at the breakfast program feeling upset. I do not like unpredictability. Especially when it has a violent quality. I guess no one does. But a fear of unpredictability, particularly the unpredictability of mental illness, kept me from reaching out to the homeless for many years even though I felt called to work with them. Unpredictability makes me feel vulnerable and I really don’t like feeling vulnerable. So my encounter this morning took me to a low place and it affected my perspective of the guests at the breakfast program. I found myself withdrawing from them, not wanting to look them in the eyes or engage with them too much as I served food. My smile felt fake. I watched the men suspiciously, expecting them to act with aggression. I knew that I was judging them as I served them and I felt disappointed in myself. For the five or six weeks that I have been volunteering with the program, I have loved it. I felt open and free and full of love for all the people that I met. And then in one morning, I felt my heart close up.
I know that this is not what God wants. God has called me to this ministry to love. To give my love to those I encounter, God’s love manifested in me, and to receive love as well. Not to be scared and shut myself up. When I came home later in the morning I spent time praying about what had happened. I talked to God about my fear and my reaction to fear and my disappointment in myself. I felt God’s gentle consolation.
There was grace at work in that early morning encounter and the unpredictability, frightening as it was. There was grace at work at the breakfast program. God was present. I thought back to my 30-Day retreat and the grace of knowing that Jesus is my best friend and that he is always with me. I remembered the graces I received for mission and discipleship and the freedom I experienced. With Jesus at my side, fear won’t hold me back. I will keep on going.
Please say a prayer for the homeless men and women in our city. And please say a prayer for me too.