After service, my church always provides lunch for whoever wants it. Sometimes people come in off the street after service just for the lunch. Anxious to rest after a week full of long days and nights, I grabbed a lunch and left, planning to eat it when I got home. As I walked down the street a ways, I decided that I would give the lunch away if I saw someone in need. I immediately thought of the homeless woman who sits outside the building next to mine and has done so for the past few years. She often sleeps there as well, when the weather is nice.
Last summer, I saw another seminary student stop and talk with her, offer her food, and check to see how she was doing. When it happened, I was stunned. My first thought was, “Oh, Willa’s totally talking to her!” My next was, “It’s New York City! Don’t talk to strangers!” Followed by, “That girl is waaay better at this whole ‘minister thing’and ‘walking the walk’ than I am.” And finally, “I wish I could do that, but I’m too chicken. I’m such an introvert, I can barely talk to the people I know.” Over the year, I mustered up the courage to mumble “Hi” as I walked past the woman, but I never got a response. Sometimes she would look up and just stare at me. And by stare, I mean STARE. Other times, I’m pretty sure she didn’t hear me. Because, to be honest, I wasn’t being very brave about it.
Fast forward a year to this moment when I’m holding the lunch and walking to the train, resolving to give it away if I came across someone who needed it more. I got all the way to the train, through Time Square station, and transferred to my final train without anyone on the train asking for money or food. The trains and the stations were quiet.
I got off the train and started walking home. As I neared my building, I saw a pair of legs sticking out from the ledge of the building next to mine. I peered down the walk, trying to get a better view. Was that her? I could feel my breath catch and my heart quicken. I was starting to lose my nerve. Was I going to just walk by, lunch in hand, and pretend I didn’t see her? As I got closer I caught a glimpse of the top of her reddish hair. I said a quick prayer. “God, help me to be brave so that I can do this.” As I approached her, I could see she was opening up a takeout bag of food. Before I could rationalize giving her additional food, I stopped in front of her and said, “Hey gal, do you want some lunch?” She stopped wrestling with the knot, looked up and me and said, “You’re giving this to me?”
“Sure,” I said, “you want it? It’s tuna or chicken, I’m not sure.” I mentally noted my surprise upon hearing her island accent. Had I, all my life, assumed that all homeless people in America were American? She reached out and took the container. “And there’s applesauce and a bean salad,” I said. “It’s really good.”
“No,” she said. “This is your lunch. Did you eat?”
“Yep,” I lied. “I already had one. This is an extra.” (Well, kinda lied anyway. I had eaten a large, late breakfast. So, yes, I had eaten. I just had a feeling that “I’m not hungry” wasn’t going to cut it with her.)
“Well,” she said, “if you’ve already eaten. Did you eat? I don’t want it if you haven’t eaten.”
“I’m good!” I said. “I’m going to go inside and grab you a fork. I’ll be right back.”
“Okay,” she said, “if you’ve already eaten. Thank you.”
“No worries,” I responded. “I’ll be right back.” I jaunted off to my apartment, grabbed a plastic fork and a paper napkin. I wrapped the fork neatly in the napkin and returned to the woman. I ran back downstairs past the security guard at the front desk of the school and said, “I think I left my ID upstairs, but I’ll be right back.”
“I know who you are,” he said, smiling. When I reached her, she had managed to open her carryout container and was digging into another meal. “Here you go,” I said and handed her the fork and napkin. “Thank you,” she said, as she reached out her food-covered hand to take it. “Where did you get this?”
“From my apartment,” I answered.
“You live here?” she said.
“I live right there in that building,” and pointed to the seminary.
“Oh, you live there? Oh. Do you have any soda in there?”
“Yes, do you have any soda?”
“Sure,” I said, running quickly through the contents of my fridge in my head. “Is orange okay? I’ll go grab it for you. Be right back.” As I headed back to my building, I knew I didn’t have any money in my wallet to get a soda from the machine and I was so grateful for the bottle of orange soda from Scotland (that had been part of a wedding favor) I had stuck in my fridge. Followed by this feeling of gratitude was a tiny bit of sadness that I would never get to taste this mystery beverage. Immediately following this sadness was a little trip down the road of guilt as I knew this woman’s need was more important than my need to satiate my curiosity. I grabbed the soda, took it back downstairs and past the doorman (who I’m sure thought I was a bit lost at this point).
“Here you go,” I said as I reached the woman again. She took it from my hand. “What kind is this?”
“It’s orange,” I said, because I didn’t know anything else about it and didn’t know what else to say. “It’s good,” I said, repeating what the groom had said when we had opened our favors a week earlier. She looked at it skeptically and I said, “It’s from Scotland. Let me know what you think the next time I see you.”
“Okay,” she said. “Thank you.” Then she said again, “You’ve already eaten?”
“Yes,” I assured her. “Middle Collegiate Church downtown gives away free lunch every Sunday at 12:30 and I grabbed an extra. I’ll grab you another the next time I go!”
“Okay, thank you,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” I said. “Have a good lunch!” As I walked back to my apartment, it occurred to me that she may end up saving the lunch I had given her until later. Not knowing what else to do, I prayed, “Lord, it’s hot out. Please don’t let that sandwich make her sick!”
God, thank you for helping me get out of the way of Your work. Thanks for letting me be a part of Your work, no matter how clumsily I do it. Now if next time, I can manage not to lie to get it done! Amen.