I was genuinely captivated by the leaves at my feet. Having nothing else to do, no cell phone to fiddle with, no purse to pretend to search through, I was engaged by the leaves at my feet. It astounded me after a moment or two how I became wrapped up in those six leaves. I supposed I had convinced myself, to some degree, that I had nothing else in the whole world. But I had not yet been able to bring myself to ask for food. As the white college kids with food had walked by, I couldn’t bring myself to stop them to ask for a little white bag and a bottle of Sunny D. It had brought tears to my eyes at being passed by, but I was powerless to stop them. That capability was choked out by all my other capabilities. I told myself that other people needed it more than I did, that I was just pretending to be “homeless” for a day, that I could go back home at 5 and make myself mac n cheese. But I was hungry then.
From my seat against the concrete, I noticed a woman walking back and forth talking to herself. I had seated myself on a bench with a concrete wall on two sides (I felt more protected there and was determined to notice in the future where people seat themselves and what it tells about how secure they feel). I walked to her and placed myself in her path, asked if she wanted to sit down and chat. We were right in front of a wooden bench, and as I was about to sit, she stopped me to lay out her coat for us to sit on. I had noticed the bird poop on the bench, but hadn’t really cared. I was wearing my old clothes anyway. She was difficult to understand as she told me her story. She had been living on the streets for a long time, and candidly told me that she had HIV. And when she asked my story, I was taken aback, and briefly debated whether or not to be honest. I made my decision and told her that I was doing a program called Mission Year (“That’s what I thought, you’re a missionary,” she interrupted), and that this was my Urban Solitude Day – we were to take nothing with us and spend a day in the city. (See Mission Year for more information on this program) I shared how hard it had been to ask for food. “Thank you!” she said. “It is hard, it’s very hard.”
She showed me (after five minutes of digging through her purse, bag – finally finding her wallet, then finally finding this – ) a tattered flier of a gospel concert coming up this Friday at a Baptist church somewhere in Philadelphia. The cost was $20. She pointed to the lead singer of one of the gospel groups pictured there and said, “I love the way he sings.” There was a specific song that she loved, but I can’t remember the name. She certainly didn’t have the money to go to the concert, and I told her that I wished I had it to give to her. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “God will provide, I’m gonna see this man sing my song.” That’s probably why I can’t remember the name of the song, she only said the title once and after that it was “her song.” It was something about being lonely, I think. She told me that she wished she had a camera and a photo album to take pictures of her missionaries as she called them, the people who stopped to talk to her and give her food, so that even if she never saw them again, she would have a memory.
I helped her gather her things together, folded the coat we had been sitting on for about an hour, and we said our goodbyes. She was headed to the emergency room for a severe blister on her toe that hadn’t healed. She had asked me if I had a weak stomach before she showed it to me, and I had lied and said I didn’t. She spoke very highly of her doctor, a “sweet girl” named Lizzie. I’m very grateful to Lizzie, I felt better about releasing Carlene to someone with physical hands and medicine instead of only the comforting hands of Jesus. We hugged, decided we would have mansions next door to each other in heaven, and she went on her way, more sure for God’s provision for her… than I am for me.
This story is an excerpt from my journal from November 13, 2006, the day I wrote the song “Her Jesus” in the video. All of the photos in the video are of Camden, New Jersey, the city I lived in during Mission Year, and most of them were taken by my husband, Brent.