It’s easy to take clean water for granted. We turn on a spigot and there it is. We get thirsty, and we take a drink. Yet, on Earth today, 768 million people do not have access to reliable, clean water for drinking, cooking and washing. One of them is Ashira. I met Ashira in 2010 when I was volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity—the order of Catholic sisters and brothers Mother Teresa founded to care for neglected people in Kolkata, India. This city of 14 million residents is one of those fascinating places where the inequity between the rich and poor is razor sharp. Modern sanitation facilities and water purification is available, but in the poorest neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, dozens of households might share a single public pump that is unreliable at best. Clean water may not be available for days at a time.
I met Ashira on my first day in Kolkata. After checking into the guest house we would be staying in, I accompanied some others in my group to a grocery store to pick up some ingredients for lunch. Like many businesses in India, the grocery store had a security guard posted at the door. The guard’s job wasn’t so much to protect the merchandise as to keep undesirable people away from the door where they might beg from customers. I was stunned when I saw the guard pelting Ashira — a girl no more than 10 or 11 years old — with bits of trash from the sidewalk to keep her from peering into the windows of the store. While my group was shopping, I bought two cokes, went outside and sat down on the curb. I smiled at Ashira, and she came over to ask if I had any money. “Would you like to share a drink?” I asked and offered her the second coke instead. We sat in silence for a bit, with the incredulous security guard behind us, and then Ashira began to tell me about herself. She lived with her sister and her baby nephew nearby. Some days she went to school in the morning, from 10 to 2. She liked school, and that’s where she had learned English, but some days she had to sit with the baby while her sister worked.
Ashira accompanied our group as we started to walk back to the guest house. After a couple blocks, she grabbed my hand and said, “This is my sister. This is our house.” Before me on the sidewalk, was a pallet of folded quilts, upon which sat a naked infant boy—about the same age as my son Samuel who was safe at home in North Carolina—and a young woman who was apparently Ashira’s older sister. This was their home. They lived on these blankets on the sidewalk of the city. This wasn’t the first time I had seen extreme poverty, but as a new parent myself, it had a visceral effect on me. Responding to poverty in a place like India is hard, even when it’s right in front of you. Often times, children and adults on the streets are themselves being exploited by an underground mafia-type system that forces them to beg for money which is then collected by a boss. Giving money to children on the street can feed into this system of manipulation. Without a long-term, active relationship—which I did not have—it was impossible to know if giving money would help or harm Ashira and her family.
I saw her nearly every morning and afternoon as we came and went from our guest house. Some evenings, I would walk down to the Mother House—the headquarters for the Missionaries of Charity—and sit with the sisters during their vesper prayer service. One evening, Ashira asked if she could accompany me. She had never been inside the Mother House before. I told her about the prayer service, that it was a time to sit with others and open ourselves up to God, and she became more excited. We found a place on the floor near the edge of the big room where the sisters gathered. Ashira soaked it all in, but as the Lord’s Prayer was repeated near the end of the vespers, her face drew back into a puzzled look. “They called God, ‘Our Father,’” she said. My mind quickly raced to find the best response. Yes, I thought, God can be understood as a father. That’s one way of relating. God can also be experienced as a strong woman, with the best qualities of Ashira’s sister, working to care for her each day in the midst of cruel circumstances. While I was still deciding if I should share this theological insight with her here among the sisters, or wait until we got outside, the little girl repeated, “They called God ‘Our Father.’ If God is Our Father, then we must be family, you and me. Even though we’re from different countries, we’re the same.” It was a breakthrough moment for me, offered by a girl who lived on a sidewalk and wanted to go school.
A few years later, I still don’t always know the best way to respond to systems of exploitive poverty. But I do know that how we respond matters for Ashira, and for us; because we’re family.
Gordie sauntered up the church steps. “Hey pastor, guess what? I’ve been saved! It’s time to celebrate!” Derrick, the associate pastor at St. James Baptist Church in Atlanta, didn’t seem surprised. Gordie got “saved” every few months by one of the various street evangelist who pepper the downtown. Sometimes his salvation would come with a week or two of sobriety. Rarely did it last more than three weeks, though, before Gordie would be banging on Derrick’s door, drunk off his tail, hoping to bum a few dollars for lunch or a bus pass. A few times in the past, Derrick had suggested Gordie try out Alcoholics Anonymous. “If you go to AA, you might find some others who know what it’s like,” Derrick said. “Some friends who can support you and help you stay sober this time.” The pastor would give him a list of several meetings in town, but Gordie’s answer was always the same: “They don’t know what I’ve been through, and they don’t know me. I can’t go alone.” This time, Derrick was ready with a response. “I’ll go with you the first time, Gordie. You don’t have to go alone.” Derrick had never been to an AA meeting before either, so they would be on equal footing, sort of. They agreed to meet at the Methodist church on Wicker Street the next morning. It was an open meeting, so they would both be welcome.
Derrick arrived 15 minutes early and settled into a metal folding chair to wait on Gordie. The meeting started at 8:00 AM. By 8:20, Derrick was pretty sure Gordie wasn’t going to show, but it was too late for him to leave now. After introductions were made, the speaker began to kick off the meeting with her personal story of addiction, dropping out of college, recovery, marriage, divorce, relapse into drinking, and now, four years of sobriety. Derrick was hit by the raw honesty of the testimony. Throughout the story, others nodded in agreement or affirmation. As a pastor, Derrick had been present with people in moments of personal vulnerability and crisis, but he had never been a part of a large group with the same level of openness and honesty that these recovering alcoholics practiced in the basement of the Methodist church.
Derrick didn’t run into Gordie again for a while, but the pastor kept going to the meetings. The speakers’ openness to being human, to being honest about experiences of hitting bottom, of hurting others and seeking forgiveness, of being wounded and seeking healing, was something he had heard about and even preached about in the sanctuary, but didn’t really understand until he came to sit and listen in this church basement.
The regular crowd was a diverse group. There were lawyers, college professors and accountants who had to leave a few minutes early to get to work by 9:00. There were a few guys who lived at the shelter. And there were lots of folks in between, just scraping by. A collection was taken each week to cover expenses of renting the space and buying the coffee. Some money was also used to by MARTA passes for people who needed to take the train or bus to work, or to look for work, after the meeting. The passes were kept in a locked cabinet in the back of the room, near the coffee pot.
One Monday morning, Derrick came in and noticed there was a heavier mood in the room. Over the weekend, someone had broken into the cabinet and taken the bus passes that had been bought for the next several months. Everyone felt violated. The tickets were important to many of the regular attendees, and they were bought from a pool of money that everyone contributed to.
Later in the week, someone found out Terrance had stolen the tickets. They had seen him outside, drunk, trying to sell them on the street for half-price. No one had seen Terrance at a meeting in several weeks, though he would often have stints of being a regular participant. The next Wednesday, Terrance filed into the room seven minutes after the meeting started. Once the speaker finished, when the floor was opened, all eyes fell on Terrance. For a brief eternity, no one moved. Finally, Terrance walked up to the front of the room, and said “Y’all probably know I took the bus passes. I’m sorry. I don’t have the cash to buy new ones now, but I want to do what I need to to earn your trust again. Whatever it takes. I know it might be a while. I’ll understand if y’all want me to go.” Terrance sat back down, and the room held its breath as minutes passed. Finally, Ed, one of the guys from the shelter, walked up, handed Terrance a white chip to mark the beginning of a new stretch of sobriety, and gave him a bear hug. The rest of the room circled up and joined in around Terrance.
An hour later, as Derrick was walking up to his office back at St. James’, Gordie came running up behind him. “Pastor, pastor, I’ve been saved!”
“Me too, Gordie,” Derrick said. “Me too.”
Roughing it was nothing new for Tiffany. She had grown up in central Africa, the daughter of Pentecostal missionaries freshly imported from Southern California. An annual camping trip with her father across the plains of Kenya was a regular delight that never lost its sense of enchantment. Hiking through the bush to find a perfect spot on the outskirts of the game preserve near their compound was an adventure in itself — not so close that their wilderness retreat would be interrupted by the blast of a backfiring pickup truck two decades overdue for a tuneup, but not so far that Tiffany couldn’t find her way back to the ranger station on her own if the need arose. Waking up early to see the flaming oranges and swirling purples and sapphires that punctuated the African sunrise over the savannah gave her childhood memories a powerful, inspiring backdrop that still helps carry her through the harder days, when the light around her grows dim and her vision for the future starts to fade.
When she came to North Carolina, Tiffany cherished those memories, but she was fairly confident that she was done with tents. In the 26 years she had lived in the United States, she had moved in and out of homelessness, drifted in and out of one marriage and two long-term relationships, given birth to three children, and earned a college degree — not necessarily in that order. She had been in California, Nevada and Kentucky. She came to Raleigh to be closer to the daughter who still answered her calls. Tiffany planned to stay with her daughter for a few weeks until she could find a job and move into a place of her own. What she didn’t know, at the time, was that a portion of her daughter’s rent was paid with a housing voucher, and even though the pull-out sofa was free, if the landlord found out Tiffany was staying more than a couple of nights, her daughter’s housing voucher would be lost. Tiffany moved into a motel, but her modest savings went out much faster than the job offers came in. Less than two months after she’d arrived in Raleigh, she was back in a tent, homeless in the heart of our city.
At least, Tiffany wasn’t alone. She had met Chuck waiting outside the food pantry one morning, and the two had hit it off right away. Chuck worked odd jobs and did occasional multi-week stints at construction sites around downtown, earning $600-$800 in a good month. When a paycheck came through, Chuck and Tiffany would spend a few nights in a hotel, get cleaned up, go out to dinner, and do what they could to pretend they were comfortable with the life they were making together. The rest of the time, they stayed in a tent tucked in the woods off of Western Boulevard. They could never manage to save enough money for a security deposit and first-month’s rent and utility deposit, and there are no shelters that will take an unmarried man and woman together.
Going through life without a home is hard, but not as hard as finding your way alone.
On a typical Tuesday afternoon during the Back Door Ministry at Pullen, 70-80 people pass through Finlator Hall to pick up a 2-hour bus pass and a bag of snacks. A few of them take the goods and head on their way. Most hang around for 15 minutes or so, just long enough to down a cup of coffee and catch their breath before hitting the pavement again. Tiffany is one of the ones who likes to stay the whole time. She pours a cup of coffee and settles into a table at the back of the room. Her smile is magnetic, and all it takes is a simple “How are you today?” to get a story started. “I’m doing dandy,” Tiffany pops off. “Why don’t you get a cup of coffee, sit down and I’ll tell you about it. Can you share a drink and chat for a while?” In this way, Tiffany has gotten to know most of the volunteers who serve at the Back Door Ministry. She has shared her story, we have told her ours, and we became friends, little by little, week after week, one cup of coffee at a time.
With around 1,200 people experiencing homelessness at any given time in Wake County, it seems logical to think that if 1,200 housed people would simply invite the 1,200 unhoused people to sleep in their empty guest rooms, we could end homelessness. Of course, the situation is a bit more complicated than that. You don’t simply invite a stranger off the street to move into your home and live with your family. Boundaries are necessary. Mutual giving and sharing of responsibilities is important. Guest bedrooms are typically reserved for our family and friends. People we know and love and trust and care about.
This is the great risk to taking a relational approach to doing mission and living into social justice. Once you share a few cups of coffee and get to know someone like Tiffany, her problems begin to become your problems. Once you develop relationships that disregard the categories of Samaritan or Jew, male or female, worthy or unworthy, rich or poor, housed or unhoused, you open yourself up to losing those safeguards. Once you become friends with Tiffany, you can’t help but worry about her and Chuck in their tent off of Western Boulevard when the sleet starts falling. So you take a risk and invite them in, wondering if they might bring Jesus along with them.
Tiffany stayed in the guest room for a few days. The friends she had made at Pullen were generous and hospitable, but had no illusions about offering her a permanent residence in their home. Every relationship has its boundaries, and learning to live together in the same space day-in-and-day-out takes a lot of work, as anyone who went to college to room with a best friend, or is partnered or married, or has had a sibling, knows. The weather got warmer and Tiffany moved out, returning to the tent with Chuck, and still stopping by Pullen for a cup of coffee and conversation at every opportunity.
Something happened, though. Maybe it was just one-too-many winters spent sleeping outside. Maybe it was that brief reminder of what it felt like to have a home and to be the recipient of radical hospitality. Maybe it was a desire to have the resources to be able to offer that same hospitality to another. Or maybe it was just time. Whatever the reason, Tiffany decided to complete an application for an apartment with the housing authority—a tedious process to be added to a waiting list that is often measured in years, not months. With her application, Tiffany included a letter of recommendation from her friends at Pullen. A few days later, she got a call. An apartment would be available in two weeks. Would she like to move in?
Life is still messy. Tiffany doesn’t have a dining room table, or a bed, or sofa—but she does have an air mattress and, for the first time in many years, a safe place to call home—largely because someone took the time to get to know her, to listen to her story, to build a friendship, and to help her regain her vision for what life could be. One cup of coffee at a time.
Sometimes, when we’re walking through the desert, God comes out and sends us water gushing from a rock. Sometimes we meet God in the stranger at the well, asking us for a drink in the heat of the day. Both cases offer us an opportunity to be transformed, if we’ll only take a minute to stop and share a drink.