I am photographing an outreach event for my church. A group of us are preparing dinner at a women’s homeless shelter. I take photos until the meal is served, then sit down next to a woman I'll call "D".
She lights up when I ask simple questions; it’s clear that people don’t ask about her much. She’s a chatterbox like I am... until she asks about my church. When I invite her, D goes silent. “I don’t go to church no more,” she finally says. “I love Jesus, but it’s just me and him now. I used to go to church, but I didn’t have no fur coat. Everybody had their fur coat, and they would talk about me, how I didn’t have no fur coat.”
“I don’t think anyone in my church has a fur coat,” I say. But I’m wearing Madewell jeans.
And I know how D feels. My church is trendy and cool. We have good hearts, but when you walk in, you might feel out of place if you’re wearing a bright color. Once I showed up without makeup on, my hair in a ponytail, and more than a few people looked me up and down and asked if I was okay. Concern and judgment are hard to pry apart sometimes.
Months later, I am on my way home from work, stepping off the train. I’m on my way up the stairs when I pass a couple of people next to pop-up signs, advertising the Bible and handing out pamphlets.
Five feet away, there’s a man I’ve seen before, standing next to the steps – a hardened-looking face in dirty clothes, homeless, asking for money. I'll call him H. I always make a point to smile, say hi, hand him a dollar or two if I’ve got any cash. I go about the routine, but today when I see H, I feel my heart break -something in his eyes is particularly broken. I take out my headphones.
“How are you doing today?” I ask, a very stupid question.
"I’m okay,” H says, and thanks me for the two dollars.
“It’s supposed to get down to the negatives tonight – do you know where you’re going to sleep?”
“No, ma’am, I don’t.”
“Do you know of any shelters in the area? I’m sorry that I don’t,” I admit.
“A few, but you can’t get into them,” he says. “Negatives, huh? I don’t even have a blanket.”
“I’m so sorry,” I say. “I wish I could be of more help.”
H starts telling me about how he used to have a job – a good job, but then something happened. He tells me he’s skilled in manual labor, but that no one will hire him, looking like he does. He says he's known more loss in his life than most people probably have, and I say, “I believe you”.
I start to notice the wave of people walking past during rush hour, pretending that H doesn’t exist. Maybe they don’t carry cash, or maybe they don’t want to give it. I don’t always stop for every person, either.
My anger is mostly directed toward the Bible-thumpers.
“Have you talked to them? Have they acknowledged you?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “I think she laughed at me when I asked,” he says. “That’s what gets me the worst. Christians.”
I try to tell him that I’m a Christian, that not all of us are like that, but I fumble through the words.
I almost walk up to them and go off— ask them if they’ve even read the Bible, and if so, why they aren’t talking to a man who certainly qualifies as the “least of these”. I have a speech prepared in my head. I want to ask them, if Jesus were standing here, would he be ignoring this man? One of them wears a WWJD bracelet. They’re just concerned with handing out their pamphlets, saving souls. But a pamphlet isn’t going to keep anyone warm in negative temperatures tonight.
Then I think about all of the people I’ve walked past, headphones in, pace quickening.
Someone interrupts us to hand H a McDonald’s bag. It’s a boy who can’t be older than sixteen, and he says, “God bless you.” H thanks him sincerely and takes the bag, but after the boy leaves, he tells me that it upsets him when people say, “God bless you”. “I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I don’t think God is really looking out for me much,” he says.
I don’t have the answers and I don’t have a blanket. I tell him I’ll be back; I need to catch the bank before it closes, get quarters for laundry. I ask for one roll instead of two and they hand back a ten-dollar bill.
I run into every boutique on the street, thinking that I can spare $25 or so for a blanket - it's an easy swipe on my debit card- but they only sell thin blankets that cost $100 or more. I give up and walk back to the train station to hand H the ten dollars. His eyes widen and he thanks me.
“Take care of yourself, H,” I say, “I’ll be praying for you.” I go to leave and then turn around again. “I’m sorry; I wish I could do more.” H just nods and says, “This is more than anyone does,” and thanks me by name.
Every day for a week I think about how this could have gone differently. How I could have taken an Uber to Target for a blanket. How I could have given him more money or bought him a meal that wasn’t from McDonald’s. What everyone would tell me – that he’ll spend my ten-dollar bill on booze or put it toward drugs. I hope he found a blanket.
A few days later I am gift shopping when two young boys approach me with boxes of candy, telling me it’s for their basketball team. Six dollars apiece. They’re aggressively blocking my way. I don't need the candy, and I figure it’s easier to just give them a dollar or two so they’ll clear my path. I pull out a dollar bill and don’t realize that it’s a ten.
One of the boys accepts my ten and hands me a Twix that costs a dollar at Walgreens. "The rest donation?" He asks. "Sure," I say. The other boy starts to follow me, cutting me off. “You got one for me? You got anything for me?” I’m alarmed and put off by their aggression— it's not that they're asking for money, it's that they're physically not letting me leave— but I try to stay calm. “You guys can split that ten,” I say. "Good luck." He sighs and whispers something crude under his breath. It finally dawns on me that something is fishy and that this isn’t for basketball, but I don’t know what to say. Later I google it, and Google tells me not to give the boys money, that I’m supporting an abusive child labor scam.
Next time I vow to ask more questions and call DCFS. It should really have concerned me that kids were selling candy on the street, unsupervised, but I didn't really pay much attention to the red flags. I'm used to seeing that. And I pretty much just wanted them to stop following me. I wonder if it would have seemed more out of place to me if they had been white.
Today I made a post for the church denomination I work for, advertising a scholarship fund for a youth conference. The copy I used was approved long ago, and one line read, "The church is a family. That means everyone has a place." It was intended to say, "we want EVERYONE to be able to come to this conference." Instead, it was read as a controversial statement about the LGBTQ community. The denomination made a statement a couple of years ago about same-sex marriage and the churches have been divided ever since. The post was garnering too much negative feedback and had to be removed. I felt scolded and sad that we, as a church, can't even say, "The church is a family. That means everyone has a place."
Last week, the editor of our magazine had to post an explanation and an apology for publishing an article - a conversation on race, in which two pastors, both people of color, spoke openly about discrimination within the church. It received so much negative feedback that the gracious apology was deemed necessary.
My heart is so heavy for the church right now. For the church I work for and the church I call home, two very different communities that still get it wrong sometimes.
And I can't scapegoat "the church"— it's me, too. Even when I try to do the right thing, it’s not enough, or it’s taken wrong, or it turns out to be the wrong thing after all. But I tell myself that at least it’s something. At least my heart is still soft and these people are still people to me.
About a year ago, I decided that I wanted to collect blankets and hand them out to the homeless. I never did it, too discouraged by the logistics of how to collect and distribute them. I posted on Instagram and brought up the idea to someone at church, but they told me there was already a homeless ministry in the works and that they’d take care of it. As the weather got warmer, I tucked the idea into bed, to sleep in the back of my mind.
I was going to call it Love Covers. A little play-on-words referencing 1 Peter 4:8:
“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”
I wasn’t sure if this verse was really relevant to the cause– until a year later, when I was walking away from a man who needed a lot more than a blanket. I hadn’t been able to give him what he needed, and it didn’t feel like enough, but I did my best to show him that I cared. And I felt God telling me that it was okay; that was what mattered in the end. Love covers.
Love covered the gap between what I wanted to give and what I had, or the fact that I didn’t go the extra mile.
It covered the ignorance that I felt in admitting that I didn’t know how to help.
It covered him in his doubt as I stood there, unable to explain how “God bless you” isn’t meant as an insult.
It covered the five feet between him and the Bible folks.
Love covered the women in the fur coats and me in my Madewell jeans and the way church sometimes feels like a fashion show.
It covered my ignorance about children selling candy on the street.
It covered that article we published and that apology that came soon after, and the divide that I feel deepening even still.
It covered that social media post, the space between its good intentions and its negative reception.
Love covered all this and more, because love covered our sins at the cross. Including all the ways that I fall short even when I try to help.
And I felt God gently reminding me of that as I wiped away a couple of tears on that walk home from the train. “Love covers,” he reminded me.
But we've still got to try.
I’m going to start buying and handing out blankets. I don’t know how it’s going to work at all yet, but if you’d like to join me, please let me know.