A couple of months ago I wrote here about my experiences on the streets of Atlanta meeting homeless people. Recently, I spent another hot day in the city with ministry colleagues. Our goal this time was simply to listen to people who call the streets home share their stories.
As our group gathered that morning in a weedy, broken-glass-and-gravel-strewn parking lot with a few dozen street people loitering in clumps around us waiting for another charity delivery of food or drinks, we prayed and read Psalm 55 together -- one of the most heart-rending expressions of both fear and faith in the Bible.
A half hour later in front of Atlanta's Gateway Center, a shelter and support center for the homeless, one of my colleagues and I were listening to a relatively well-dressed African-American woman named Talina (names have been changed), her hair bound gracefully atop her head by a teal scarf. She was expressing her own fear about her situation in ways that eerily and almost literally echoed the psalmist's words in Psalm 55.
Attend to me, and answer me; I am troubled in my complaint. I am distraught by the noise of the enemy, because of the clamor of the wicked. For they bring trouble upon me, and in anger they cherish enmity against me. (Psalm 55:2-3)
Talina was filled with frustration and fear. She had arrived at the Gateway Center because she'd heard they were giving away clothes at 10 a.m. She had asked the guard there about it, and she complained to us that he rudely turned her away with no explanation. What had she done to deserve that kind of treatment? she asked us. She was just asking. Another woman sitting outside on the already hot sidewalk with us explained that the guard has to deal with so much crap all the time he was probably just frustrated and took it out on her.
But Talina continued to share her story. "Listen to my cry for justice in the midst of the wicked!" she almost seemed to be saying. She was living with a friend, a precarious situation that she said would not last more than a few days, and then what? She had been evicted from her own apartment under false charges, had taken the landlord to court, but he'd lied under oath! she cried. How can they lie under oath and get away with it? So the court had upheld the eviction. She was "this close" to living on the street herself.
My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me. And I say, "O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; truly, I would flee far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find a shelter for myself from the raging wind and tempest. (Psalm 55: 4-8)
Talina said the thought of being homeless again was terrifying to her. After all, she had to be clean! And do you know what it's like for a woman alone on the street? She was on her own, the mother of four grown children (one an addict, one disabled, one in college, another living out of the area) and had been the victim of a physically abusive husband. She'd had to get out of that situation for fear of her own life if not her sanity.
If only she could get some help from the various agencies and shelters and support organizations, if she could only have her own place, by herself, safe... but she said they only give her the runaround, or say funds have been cut, or they treat her like someone who's not worthy of help. Don't they know that they are just one paycheck away from being on the street too? She was a trained CNA and wanted to go to nursing school, had paralegal training, but she couldn't get a job. She goes to the public library every day to search online for jobs, send out resumes, and wait for responses that don't come. Why is this happening? she wondered with us, her eyes wrinkled with fear.
Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech; for I see violence and strife in the city. Day and night they go around it on its walls, and iniquity and trouble are within it; ruin is in its midst; oppression and fraud do not depart from its marketplace. (Psalm 55:9-11)
She told us story after story of how one person or another had victimized her, defrauded her, lied to her, cheated her, abused her, and she was exhausted by it, holding on now only by a thin thread of sanity and strength. Her life was surrounded by violence and strife, iniquity and trouble.
It is not enemies who taunt me -- I could bear that; it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me -- I could hide from them. But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend, with whom I kept pleasant company; we walked in the house of God with the throng. Let death come upon them; let them go down alive to Sheol; for evil is in their homes and in their hearts. (Psalm 12-15)
Talina said she'd had lost the support of her youngest daughter, a teenager, because her abusive husband had lied about Talina to her and shut her out. Other family members had ignored her plight, and her own family back in the Northeast could not help because they were all addicts. Those closest to her were no help, and probably would only make things worse.
As we talked with Talina and three other women sitting in the blazing hot morning sun on the sidewalk in front of the Gateway Center for nearly two hours, all their stories came out one at a time in bits and pieces.
There was Valerie, a 20-year-old who slept under the nearby bridge, had no shoes and a bad cut on one big toe with a dirt-caked band-aid she was trying to clean off, who wanted to be a famous country singer. She sang two songs for us that she'd written, her Allison Krauss-like voice sounding like an angel. One song had the repeating line, "my life is like a roller coaster" and was saturated with pain and fear, and another song was about an abusive father and a victimized mother who nevertheless had to stay with the dangerous man. Valerie mentioned matter-of-factly that she was trying to lose weight because she'd just had a miscarriage, and her ex-boyfriend, she pointed out, was among the rough guys hanging out across the street who frequently shouted and cursed at each other.
And Rachel, middle-aged, who said she'd just arrived downtown after living with a friend in Alpharetta, but "couldn't two crazy women live together." She was already creating new families here, having adopted at the shelter the night before a "daughter and grandchildren" -- a younger woman and her two children, whose stuff she was watching -- and a new "sister," Carol, a pale middle-aged woman with dark red scratches on her wrist, who had just gotten in town yesterday after being released from a rural hospital with no place to go after having attempted suicide.
Each one of them spoke of a past of violent abuse at the hands of a father or a husband or boyfriend. Each one expressed their anger and frustration about their situation, and yet also their acceptance of it, to one degree or another. Each one was grateful for the new families they were making on the street to support and protect one another. They sat together with their bags and suitcases, having had to vacate the shelter that morning and waiting for the sign-in that evening, and I listened.
But I call upon God, and the Lord will save me.... Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved. But you, O God, will cast them down into the lowest pit; the bloodthirsty and treacherous shall not live out half their days. But I will trust in you. (Psalm 55:16, 22-23)
"And don't talk to me about God," Talina said boldly, interrupting herself as she described her difficult situation. "I've had it with that stuff." She was tired about hearing people say God was in this and just have faith and trust him. It didn't work, she declared.
Later Talina's heart softened a bit about her faith and she later admitted that she really did believe. She explained that she was a Muslim and had been involved in some Muslim groups here, but wasn't really active. But she still had a glimmer of hope that it would work out.
By then it was nearly 12 p.m., and the free clothes hadn't shown up but now the rumor was that a bus was coming at noon and would take whoever wanted to go from the shelter to get the clothes. We left before the bus had arrived, and I wonder if it ever did.
After hearing their stories and learning much more about life on the streets from a woman's point of view, my colleague and I had to leave and walk to a nearby park to regroup with our colleagues. As we walked away, all I could say was "wow," and tears came to my eyes. I couldn't talk for a moment as the words of Psalm 55 we'd heard that morning became more real to me than ever.
We heard several other stories that day, and all of them were about places and situations utterly foreign to me. Many of these folks spoke of God, and of God's care for them in spite of these difficult circumstances.
God's story is one of redemption. There seems to be very little of that in these folks' lives. And yet I think of the families formed on the streets. Rachel had explained that we can't choose our real families, but we can chose to make new families. I wondered if that was some redemptive truth to hang on to.
On the surface, I have little in common with these folks, but when you dig down deep you realize "we are all just poor pitiful people," as an old friend of mine used to say. We hope and pray for the best. And we hope and pray that God is with us in the meantime.
Follow Rev. Peter M. Wallace on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pwallace