Boston’s early morning streets are empty as I set out for a walk downtown. Out of the corner of my eye (I admit to avoiding eye contact in the city) I see a woman approaching. I would have passed without speaking but she stops, looks at me and says, “Sir, may I speak with you? I don’t want any money, but I’m hungry.” She proceeds to tell a credible story of having been turned away at a couple of shelters.
“Would you consider buying me a few things?” She points to a nearby Shaws supermarket (go figure, right in the middle of Boston!). “Sure,” I say. I have learned over the years to trust but verify hardship stories. This one sounded real.
“My name is Michelle,” she says, extending her hand. “You here for the 4th (of July)?” I explain my wife is at a conference and I am along for the ride, leaving today back to our home in New Hampshire.
“So how about you?” I ask, “What’s your story?”
“It’s a long one, but here’s the short version. I was married for thirteen years to a man who abused women. When I left him I had nothing. I have an eighteen year-old daughter who lives with my mom in Minnesota. She graduated this year.” She says she has been living under a tunnel and shows me bites on her arms from rogue insects there. She hopes to be in a shelter soon.
I am struck at how well spoken she is, and how sincere. There is a brightness in her eyes that doesn’t match the rest of her face. Her hair is disheveled and her face weathered. She wears a knitted shawl and what looks like nurse’s pants. I interrupt her story to let her buy some groceries and tell her I’ll meet her at the checkout. While she shops, I look among the magazines for something that might present the love of God that I could leave with her. Nothing. In a few minutes she meets me with her basket that includes a loaf of bread, milk, bologna, some macaroni salad and donuts. She thanks me ten times while the order is processed.
Outside I consider how I might share the gospel. It comes out something like this: “If I were back home today, I’d be preaching at my church. How about you?” I intentionally ask an open-ended question, to draw her out.
“My church is on Arlington (Street).”
“Why do you go?” I ask. She seems surprised by this question.
“Because right now God is all I have.”
“Do you know Jesus?” She looks down thoughtfully, then up.
“When I was little, my mother would rock me in a black rocking chair and tell me about Jesus. When I was seven I asked Jesus into my heart.” So this is her story, and it sounds real. She doesn’t seem angry or sad, just impatient for change. She continues, “Now I’m working with a couple of ladies at the church. They have helped me apply for SSI (disability), I’ll be getting a room next month and I hope to have a job housekeeping. It’s only twenty-five hours a week, but it’s something.”
I tell her I am sorry for her situation. “Everyone has their problems,” she says. Then we pray, shake hands and walk away in separate directions. After a few moments I turn for one last glimpse of Michelle, but she is gone. For a moment I stand alone, wondering why two souls should be assigned such different lives.
On the way back to my hotel I said a silent prayer to the God who sees.