City Life, Street Ministry


I am not really a city person. It took two years for me to venture as far as the lakeside in Chicago, even when I worked about two blocks from the waterfront. I don’t go to theatres, clubs, pubs or restaurants. I don’t shop. What am I doing in a city?


Particularly among the people who end up living and begging on the streets. They are addicts, alcoholics, runaways, ex-cons, and con artists. They are sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, victims and disabled. Some are holding onto life with a tight grip, others are barely holding on with a fingernail. Some have found that street life keeps them out of institutions, as long as they can keep moving, keep a low profile, stay out of legal trouble. Others find that street life regularly sends them to jail or the psychiatric unit, because they don’t move fast enough, or don’t have a low profile, or they can’t stay away from those who lead them astray.

I talked to James on the phone today. James was once a gang leader, a bad character, a dangerous man. Substance abuse, though, left him weak and sick. He walked into a Pentecostal mission one night, and found a new life. It didn’t get him off the streets, though, and since he wouldn’t go back to crime, he begged. then he ended up near dead in the snow. A long hospital stay brought social workers into his life, and things turned around, as he went to a transitional shelter, and then into his own apartment.

James is my principal contact downtown. He knows everyone, and everyone knows him. He prays with people, gives blessings, and is a source of hard-won wisdom.  He still has to beg from time to time, to get en0ugh together to pay an electric bill, or to get some documents copied. He knows I don’t like him to beg. He is vulnerable, with his bad knees, his slight frame, his fragile bones. I thought James was about seventy; his nephew tells me James is two years older than me. the police hassle him sometimes when he has to sit down on the street corner, claiming he is blocking pedestrian traffic or being a nuisance. James is polite, quiet, and helpful. Yet his need and his presence are seen as intimidating to tourists.


James needs some help this week, but I don’t have the funds. I don’t have time to get downtown until the end of the week. I will check in with him by phone before I take the Blue Line to Clinton Street. It hurts me that James has to beg, that I can’t help him with his simple and basic needs. It hurt me yesterday that I had run out of money, food cards and transit passes. I gave one person a rosary and a Bible, and he appreciated it, but he needed food and shelter as well.

We are not funded by a denomination or church. We are pretty much on our own. We get some donations, but most of Hermosa House and the YOKE is supported by our own earnings, and we are maintaining two separate residences right now because of, well, circumstances. Our prayer is to be self-sustaining, to draw in enough companions to make the burden light for everyone involved, and have enough to help the poorest of the poor. This is not a situation for beginners, though. We have tried that, and the ones without years of experience in the faith run from the intensity, the poverty, the lack of diversion. We are an order for those who are already deep in obedience to their Lord. We cannot serve two masters, not both God and the world of success, status and wealth. We serve one Lord, and we bar the door to the other one who would master us in His place.

hermosa house beggars poster



Grief and Comfort

caspar david friedrich the window

If I could fit out a small, portable chapel that I would push like a handcart, it would be a useful thing.  Still, the sacred space makes itself apparent, flows down around us and encloses us when we must call upon God for shelter.

As I left work today, I passed a woman who was seated in a chair just beside the subway turnstiles. She seemed to be hyper-ventilating, and a small cluster of Transit Authority employees surrounded her. Perhaps she had fainted, perhaps she was lost. I had a feeling that their problem was about to become my concern. One of the guards offered to walk with her down to the train. I was just a few yards ahead of them, and he escorted her onto the car where I was seated. She took the seat behind me.

Then she started to cry.

It was more than crying. It was wailing, and praying. She was in hijab, and she was calling out in Farsi. As the doors of the car closed and the train started to move, I asked her if she was ill, if there was something I could do to help. Two young Egyptian girls, also hijabi, sat across from her. I pieced together that she was overwhelmed with the news she had just received that her father had died. She had been at work in the airport, a family member called her, and she was on her way home to tell her household.

What could be done? I could not reassure her; her father was dead, it was terrible news, and no empty consolation would mend that. I held her hand, and patted her shoulder. I told her I understood, that it was the saddest news one could hear. She cried, she wailed, and she prayed. The two Egyptian girls tried to comfort her, hold her other hand, and pray with her, but they did not speak Farsi, and told her in English to be a strong Muslim woman, that Allah could hear her prayers.

She told me what a fine man her father was, that now she was sure he was with Allah, that he was receiving the reward for his faith. I agreed with her, not because I knew, or even believed in the same way, but because that was important to her, to think of her father as a man of great faith, who God loved.

Grief cannot be stopped. Once it starts, it is as inexorable as the tide. It must run its course, the tears shed, the words said, the prayers prayed. It is like labour, one friend told me, and to try to circumvent it will harm all those involved.

I knew which train station she needed to exit at, and the girls were going the same way. I walked her to the door of the car, and made sure she was safe. The girls would see her to the bus. She thanked me for my care and support. I hadn’t done anything but make sure she reached her destination, and held her hand, and murmured soothing words that really didn’t matter in content.

Tourists and other passengers looked at me with curiosity. “Her father just died,” I explained. “She got the news while at work.”

They had watched this noisy and dramatic scene with some alarm; they were all right with having me take charge of the scenario. Two women sitting together, probably sisters visiting Chicago, thanked me for my intervention and praised my Christian compassion. The man in front of me said, “I’ve learned something from you. You were so kind.”

In that loop of eternity, there were four of us caught in a vortex of grief and prayer, all of us women, all of us traditionally dressed. The Afghani woman crying out her loss was simply dressed for work, and covered with a beautiful red scarf. The two Egyptian girls, delicate, big-eyed as icons, and graced with glowing, caramel skin like the light of sanctuary lamps, wore elegant silks. I was in my plain black skirt, uniform shirt, and a black kerchief folded and pinned as a short veil. We were four women of faith, at a crossroads. We did what should be natural to women, and entered an ancient relationship, of comforting the bereaved, and praying out the grief.

It was a blessing to minister in that difficult situation, to be allowed inside the curtained enclosure that is hijabi. It did not matter that I am Christian, or that they were Muslim. We were all merely human, merely women, at a time when one woman needs another.