and ramblings on everything in between
I step off a 20-passenger bus right into a large mud puddle. It has rained all day and it is warm for a late December night. The long-abandoned warehouse district is filled with uneven concrete and debris and it is hard to know where I am stepping.
Betsy, a friend from church and the woman who drove us to the site, sets off to find tables to hold blankets and coats and bedding. She’s in her element and doesn’t notice that she has left us without a task or a place to jump in. The nine of us stare at each other.
After a few minutes, a man dressed in camouflage approaches us. “Betsy said you need a job. Want to put together bags of food and load them into the bus?” We all smile and nod, grateful for the job. Cardboard boxes filled with gas station sandwiches, small bags of chips, cookies, and fruit are stacked side-by-side on a folding table. I stand at one end, dropping bottled water into the bags before passing them on to the fruit sorter. The rain continues to fall on us. We load over 60 bags into the bus and then set out to find another job to do. Seven girls from my youth group follow behind me as we make our way through a crowd of people unloading boxes and garbage bags to make order out of the donations. Standing near the food truck is a woman in a long cream coat and a baby pink stocking cap. She leads a few people in Christmas carols. As we pass by her, someone extends a few lyric sheets to me. I tell the girls we’ll sing along with the others and they grumble in response. Small rain drops moisten the page as we sing the Twelve Days of Christmas and Silent Night. Lamps running on generators light the page for us.
The man in camouflage finds us once again. “Why don’t you girls come out on the bus with me? We can pass out the bags you made.” I learn the man’s name is Wayne.
We find Betsy and tell her our plan. “Good luck. Stay close together,” she calls out.
Three men greet us on the bus as we find our seats. I notice the woman in the cream coat has joined us, as well. Wayne carefully drives around parked cars and mammoth size pot holes to get us back to the street.
“We do a loop around downtown, making four stops,” he says to me and my co-leader, Jen. “There might not be many out tonight will all this rain.” Wayne makes a few turns and then honks the horn as we slow down on a side street. He parks the bus and we unload and walk to the back of the bus.
“Girls, stay close to the bus,” a man advises as he hands us plastic bags filled with water bottles, sandwiches, and cookies. “Don’t go down the street unless you have a man with you. And don’t go down that way,” he points to the north. “That’s where the drug deals go down.”
The girls snicker as they fill their arms with bags. I make eye contact with my co-leader and mouth the words, “Their parents are going to kill us.”
In the name of Jesus, I remind myself.
As we pass out food and blankets, most individuals immediately ask what else we have with us. “Do you have…” shirts, children’s coats, tarps. I am surprised by this but remind myself that they live in a world where their life depends on those items. When they have an opportunity to get something, they ask for everything they need. There is no time to pretend that food is enough. There is only the reality of the harsh life they lead.
A few of us begin walking up the street with Wayne. He sees a man a block down and raises his hands to his mouth to project his voice. “You need food?” he yells.
The man turns around and beings walking swiftly toward us. “You on crack?” he yells back. “Askin’ me if I need food…” he says with a chuckle, shaking his head. “I always need food!” He looks at each of us and thanks us for the bags we fill his arms with. We wish him a merry Christmas and he continues his quick pace down the street.
Wayne is right. There aren’t many people out tonight. We find a few huddled under awnings and on the steps of buildings. A few more are walking around, their possessions tucked into plastic shopping bags. Wayne makes a quick stop outside an apartment complex. The jolt causes us to smash into the seat in front of us. Wayne honks the horn a few times and hops out of his seat.
“Martin lives here,” he says. “You gotta meet Martin.”
We unload and watch an older gentleman, a lady, and a young boy emerge from inside the building.
“Martin, my man!” Wayne yells, giving the boy a high-five. “Look at all these ladies who came out to meet you.”
Martin, who is six, has a wide smile on his face. Wayne speaks with his father and gives him a few bags of food before asking Martin if he wants to pose for a picture. “Come on, man! You’ll be famous!” After a moment of shyness, Martin comes around and stands in between the crowd of girls smiling ear to ear. Wayne snaps a few photos that he will post on the Churches on the Street website.
Once we are back in the bus, Wayne explains that just a few years ago that family was living on the streets. Churches on the Street helped Martin’s father collect social security and secure an affordable apartment. Wayne chuckles and says, “Now any time you’re riding in a car with Martin and you drive over a viaduct, Martin will say, ‘I use to live down there.’”
At our last stop, I take a moment to introduce myself to the woman in the cream coat. Her name is Mindy. I learn that she is a missionary who has been living on the streets for three years to share the Gospel with the less fortunate. When I ask what made her choose a life of homelessness, she responds firmly, “God told me to.” The look on her face seems to reveal that there is no other reason why she would be doing what she is doing.
“I died in 2011,” she continues, “and God showed me Hell in those moments. When I came back to life, I knew I had to do something to save people from what I saw. God told me to prepare the homeless for His son’s second coming so that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”
“How long have you been in St. Louis?” I ask.
“Just got back two weeks ago. I was in Florida for a long time before that. I’ve been all across the U.S. in the past three years. I’ve seen some crazy things, let me tell you. And God has revealed himself to me over and over again. People show up with handouts just when you think you can’t go another second without eating. Drug-addicted men leave me alone even when I wake up to find them sleeping right next to me.” She shakes her head.
“I can’t imagine…,” I murmur. And I can’t imagine. “Isn’t it amazing how we can set out to share God with others but we’re the ones who end up getting blessed and having our eyes opened again and again to His love?” I say. We both laugh.
“Ain’t that the truth,” Mindy agrees.
We hand out the last of our supplies and before loading into the bus Wayne asks Mindy to share some of her story with the girls. She tells us of what the streets have taught her.
“A lot of people say, ‘Why don’t they go to a shelter instead of staying on the streets?’ but a lot of times the conditions in a shelter are deplorable. Absolutely deplorable. They’re better off staying on the streets with all the bed bugs, disease, and filth. There are some shelters that require occupants to be out by 6:00a.m. and they can’t return until 9:00p.m.”
“Even women and children,” Wayne jumps in.
“Yes, even women and children. They have to keep their kids warm while they roam the streets all day and night before they can return.”
“And what happens to girls this age?” Wayne asks, sweeping a hand over to our group of 15-year-olds. “What happens when someone like them runs away and finds themselves on the street?”
“Within a matter of days, they’re usually snatched up by a man, introduced to drugs until they develop an addiction, and them pimped out for money. I’ve never seen a young girl survive out here on her own. Someone ends up claiming her and then using her to make a buck. Even boyfriends and husbands do this to them.”
Her stories go on about how she is able to find what she needs to survive, how cops treat the homeless in different cities, and how she has changed her message over the years – realizing that you can’t always show up with the “Jesus loves you” message when you are facing someone who is broken and hardened by life. Sometimes the honest truth of how much worse Hell is than the hell they live in on Earth is what resonates.
“And what do you see making a difference out here?” Wayne asks.
“People like you,” Mindy responds. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people like you show up at exactly the right time with food or blankets or clothing. It still amazes me.”
We are silent as we stare at Mindy, amazed that someone would choose to live on the streets for a greater good. With the same silence, we step onto the bus. Wayne says we will take Mindy to the place where she is sleeping for the night.
We round a corner and Mindy begins to tell the driver where her spot is. “There, coming up on the right,” she says. “A gentleman sleeps on this side and I always take the other side.”
The awning she sleeps under provides more than enough protection from the rain. “You picked the right side,” Wayne laughs. “Out of the wind over there, unlike that fella.”
We share the last of the food and Christmas treats with Mindy. She thanks us with undeniable happiness and gratitude in her voice and smiles brightly as we hug her goodbye. Before walking back to the bus, I watch her unfold a piece of cardboard that she will sleep on. She then walks up the sidewalk to find her blankets where she hid them earlier in the day. She waves and smiles big again as we honk and drive away. I keep looking at the cardboard strip – her bed – and think about her decision to live this way. For the past month I’ve been agonizing over finding a new comforter for my own bed at home, unhappy with how cheap $200 comforters feel. The ridiculousness of that statement sits heavy in my heart as we leave Mindy behind.
When we make it back to the site, the homeless who gathered there for dinner have made their way back to their street corners, abandon buildings, and tents. A few volunteers are left, tearing down tables and throwing extra supplies into the trunks of cars. A food truck worker yells out at us as we step off the bus, “We have food left – anyone hungry?”
A few of us nod and form a line behind the truck. We are passed plates of turkey, green beans, and rolls. A fire is burning in a barrel and the rain is falling incessantly on us. We eat in the rain and one girl remarks, “The ashes from the fire look like snow.” We all look up. My roll is soggy but I eat it anyway.
On the way home, the girls chatter loudly about Taylor Swift, boys at school, and how late they’re going to sleep in the next day. But the whole ride home all I can think about is Mindy.