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.