Saturday, November 5, 2016
MY TURN TO HELP
Yesterday I stepped out of the monastery’s front door onto King Boulevard into a golden autumn sunshine, ready to take a peaceful walk in Branch Brook Park. As I walked to the corner to cross the street to our parking lot, I was already imagining the red and yellow foliage reflecting in the quiet lake.
As I reached the corner, however, my daydream was interrupted and my plans put on hold by a woman in her forties who stood in the middle of the sidewalk who, with her head thrown back, was shouting as loud as she could, as if addressing the entire universe, including the stars, the planets, and Saint Mary’s Church tower.
I looked at her closely: blond hair in a low ponytail, a weathered face tinted an unhealthy gray, jeans and a light jacket, her hand clutching a couple of sheets of paper which she was waving in the air. She was the picture of someone going over the edge, as if she were in a rowboat that was being swept along by a great river and about to be dragged over the falls.
I quickly realized that she was not raving or incoherent, but seemed afraid that the world was conspiring to push her in that direction. “Where the hell is one-thirteen William Street?” she was asking the sky and the trees. “They told me it’s up here someplace, but I can’t find it. There isn’t any 113! And if I don’t keep my appointment, the judge is gonna throw me in jail! I can’t take this no more! My son is in a mental institution; he told me to go to hell! I went to the building down there and they told me that I was in the wrong place, and that 113 was further up the street here.” Every sentence was laced with at least one obscenity.
I approached her slowly and offered in a gentle voice, “Excuse me. Maybe I can help you.” She repeated her rant about looking for the nonexistent number 113 William Street. I asked her if I could look at the papers she was waving. Just as I expected, she had a referral to the Health and Welfare Department building half a block down the hill. I tried to reassure her, but she insisted, “I was there already, and they told me that that’s not the place. It says on the paper I need 113!”
Knowing that there was no 113 William Street, and wondering who could have told her such a thing, I suggested, “Let’s just go back down there together and see what’s going on.” On the short walk down the hill she poured out a litany of troubles and complaints, including the unjust system that makes it illegal for her to be homeless.
We walked into the building and I addressed the security guard, “Hi! Maybe you can help us out here! We’ve got a problem with this address.” At that moment the woman cried out “Look! This is the place! It says it right on the sign.” She was right - the sign in the lobby said exactly the same thing as her referral slip.
I wondered again who could have sent the woman to a non-existent address up the hill. The guard asked, “May I see that paper?” He looked at it and said, “This says 110! You're in the right place!” Having read the paper myself I took it back and stared at the handwritten address that someone had filled in, and it clearly said 0ne-one-three. But the guard said, “No, look hard, that’s actually a zero, not a three.” It took a lot of imagination to twist that three into a zero, but I just grumbled and handed the letter back to the woman, happy that she was in the right place at last. The guard directed her to the reception desk, and she disappeared, without another word, through the next set of doors. As I turned to leave, the guard called after me, “Thank you!” which I thought was nice of him. I walked up the hill to get my car and drive over to the park.
Ten minutes later, I was walking around the peaceful lake, thinking about that distraught woman. I kept picturing her standing on the corner by the church at her wits’ end, shouting “I can’t take this any more! It’s driving me crazy! What am I supposed to do?”
I thought to myself that she was the image of humanity, lost, frustrated, and overwhelmed, looking for answers that never come. Only God offers the possibility of sanity and sense, even if the sense has a lot of mystery mixed in.
It occurred to me, too, that one of the most common ways that the Lord helps us to get through overwhelming situations is to give us people to help us, who take the time to care about us.
I was happy that the Lord had asked for my help this afternoon, and felt reassured that some day, when I’m about to go over the edge, he’ll send someone to walk down the hill with me, and guide me into the right building.