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I was afraid to ask what I knew I should ask. The words were on the tip of my tongue, but they were stalled by the fear that God would actually give me what I was asking for, and I was scared of that. I stood there a moment, and looked at my feet. What did the words “break my heart” mean to the Lord? How would that feel? Did I want to know?
I was already straining myself by going to this ministry every week- seeking out the faces of people I could relate to was different for me; my first instinct is to flee. My mouth kept captive the words of the still-born prayer, and I searched my heart for some strength. Every week I am faced with the same thoughts and feelings- of dread, of pain, of protest… why did I go? Why didn’t I just stay at home? Why didn’t I just say no for this week… said “Ill catch you guys next week”… what was so significant, so powerful about this week, every week, that Satan was going to such lengths to keep me from wanting this?
“This” was the homeless ministry I partook in every Saturday afternoon. Every week I stood alone out in the little courtyard in the middle of campus, sometimes a half-hour, even an hour early, wondering if I should go. The others usually filter in around three thirty, and every second before that time I battle with the desire to just slip away and go back upstairs to my apartment, like I was never there.
The breeze pushed the trees around a little as I mounted some strength, and let the words “Lord, break my heart for these people” fall out of my mouth and into the air. As soon as they were free I felt drained. I wondered what great thing God was preparing for me- I almost hoped that the wind had swept my prayer out of his hearing, or perhaps he was occupied on some other, greater task, and won’t notice the little prayer that I had let up.
People were scarce, inevitably working on papers or homework or something- not even aware of the little me standing out amongst the island of grass and trees in the sea of concrete between the buildings. I liked it that way, and hated it that way- but I was used to it, my heart had been so hard for so long. I walked around life like a brick wall, too afraid to absorb love or fear or anything remotely emotional… I didn’t know if I had the strength, or I knew I didn’t and was afraid to admit it. I was terrified of being invisible, yet longed for it, and in that moment, I felt like I was.
The chill was growing as the others approached. I put on my best happy face and tried to match eveyone’s mounting anticipation and excitement. A couple holding hands walked past, oblivious to the motley group that left campus in the middle of the Saturday afternoon to partake in another world… hopping on the Brown Line like it was the vortex to another dimension. And as I readied myself to enter that world again, I couldn’t help but feel a little fear- fear of the unknown, fear of the known… afraid that it would be as intense as last week, and afraid of my prayer for a broken heart. Who prays for a broken heart? I trembled.
Linked arms with the only other girl in the group, named Sarah, I pushed the fear aside. I tried not to think about anything in particular, and went along with the conversation, keeping my legs moving in time and in step with hers. I found myself standing amongst a score of people, all joined hands and bowing their heads, some from other campuses around the city, some from high schools and some too old or too young for either. The glass windows and doors of the entrance of Oglivie, the train station that graciously accommodated nearly thirty boisterous, laughing, praying, random Christians brought a weird glow onto the tops of our heads. Security guards looked on silently, and uniformed soldiers stood outside, waiting for loved ones, or a taxi, their suitcases leaning against their legs.
Josh, the leader of the group, raised his hand above the heads and we quieted. He was tall and hard to miss, eclectic and smiling lopsidedly, he announced the routes and asked for group leaders. Grocery bags and garbage bags of sandwiches stood against the display window of the expensive clothing store, the well-dressed mannequins posing idly before bottles of water and backpacks, and college students preparing themselves for the long walk. I stood silent on the outskirts of the circle, waiting for the group to Lower Wacker to assemble.
I had gone down Lower Wacker the week before, and the sights hit me like a ton of bricks. It dipped down, steady orange lights illuminating the road before us, cement columns holding the concrete ceiling in place. The rustle of the plastic bags and the footsteps of our shoes across the concrete tunnel’s floor echoed eerily against the walls. The occasional rush past of a car or a truck or a semi pushed a sheet of air against us, and even the air bounced against the wall and came careening back.
We hop one of the barriers and walk around another. Behind lies two men, their blankets pulled closely to their neck and ears, their bodies thin and shivering. The stench is unbearable at first, but we push through it and set the brown paper bag that holds the sandwich and a bag of chips, and a bottled water next to them. One of them, named Roc, glares at us and yells at us to get on our way, but the other is silent, smiling and nodding slightly. A little further lies a family, their cardboard box wall separating their little make-shift home from the dirty ground. Their shoes sat neatly on the border of their area, and she gives us a smile, recognizing us from last week.
As we moved on to the next, and the next, the little piles of clothing and blankets moving to reveal a different, new face, each one unique from the last. I couldn’t help but be silent, my usual boisterous, out-loud self quieted as I was shown again and again the reality of life. Any where else I wouldn’t have stopped to think that these were real people… real people. And my hard heart, void of emotion, couldn’t handle that reality.
I held some sort of hidden pride inside. I remember wondering where I would be able to sleep, when I would eat, where would I be able to take a shower so I would look like a normal person. I never pushed a grocery cart around, never carried my things in a garbage bag, never slept in an alley… a back pack is no garbage bag, under the overhang of Target is no alley. Inside… inside I felt empty. I was only given a small taste of homelessness a year and a half ago, far away in Michigan. Here, on the streets of Chicago, it was different. I was different. I’ve eaten, I’m warm, I have people who care about me, I have some place to sleep. And as I walked before the dim lighting of Lower Wacker, the bag of sandwiches hitting against my leg at every step, I told myself that I couldn’t relate with these people. They were real people, yes, but some form of destitute that required emotions and understanding still too far out of reach.
We took the stairs up out of Lower Wacker and hour or so later, a little late for the biblestudy we attended every week and had invited some of the people to. I was breathing a sigh of relief, happy somewhat, that it was over. We walked down the street, just talking and laughing, exchanging stories, when we passed her.
She was standing on the corner of Randolf and Michigan, her big brown eyes filled with unspilt tears, a little paper sign in her hands, her lips pursed shut. “I left my abusive boyfriend for a battered women’s shelter that was scarier. Help me get home.” was what it basically said. She wore a green shirt that did no damage against the wind, and her brown hair was pulled back into a half pony-tail. She looked… normal. I looked at her, and my heart broke. In her eyes, I saw me.
There stood me, a mere year and a half ago- maybe not holding a sign, maybe not standing on the corner of Randolf and Michigan, but there I was, no where to go, no where to stay, no one to love me. There was me, standing cold against the wind, and wishing there were people in the world who cared enough to send me somewhere I could call home.
As the members of our group listened to her story, I could hardly hear her words over the cracking of my heart in my ears. She was normal- I was normal. She was normal. I pulled off my sweatshirt and handed it to her. She was normal… why was this so hard to understand? Why does it keep running through my mind? When someone hears homeless, they think of the residents of Lower Wacker, not this girl, not me. They think garbage bags and alleys… not backpacks and Target. They think dirty and smelly, not clean and done up. They think sitting on the side of the street, not a normal girl with make-up on, holding onto a sheet of paper with dear life, hoping and praying that someone, somewhere would understand that just because she wasn’t dirty or smelly doesn’t mean her story isn’t validated.
Over the screams of the city I laid my hand on her and cried out to God for her- keep her safe, Lord, keep her warm… give her not a doubt in her mind that you love her. Take care of her, Lord, take care of Kelly.
I didn’t have to wonder what she was thinking- I didn’t have to wonder what she was praying for. I remember screaming those same words, asking him “LORD, why don’t you love me? Lord! Why don’t you care? I’m out here cold and unhappy and broken and bleeding and homeless, why aren’t you taking care of me?! Where are you Lord?! Why don’t you love me?” And as I remembered those words, and I gave her a hug, walking away was almost too hard to bear. The few dollars we had on us seemed so small compared to the pain and the need she had. I walked across the intersection holding my head, remembering that place, the wind pushing the chill around my now-bare arms. I went faster, hoping that the group following behind me wouldn’t see my bitter tears as I wept. I wept. I never cry… I never feel. And yet I wept.
Lord! Lord! I didn’t ask to be faced by my brokenness. I didn’t ask to be given a mirror- I didn’t want to see my own pain. But yet, that’s what happened. I had spent so much time and effort and heart ache trying to forget who I was, what i had come from, what I was feeling… I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to feel it. I was afraid to. And yet here I was, faced with another me… Kelly… Kelly.
As I wept, my group caught up with me and one of the girls, named Anilysa, put her hand on me and cried with me. A complete stranger, we had only known eachother for the short time I have been here, walking with me in silence. And when she asked me what was wrong, I had nothing else to say but “I just met me!” The reality was so sharp, so vivid, so close, that I could grasp it, and it cut me.