On one of the hottest, most sultry days of August, as only can be in New York City, the Tuesday lunch-time line for rough sleepers was huge. It went down the church steps across the street, along west 80th street, and onto Broadway. I wasn’t sure we could feed everyone, and people were getting restless.
We had a fragile relationship with our neighbors on the upper West Side. People thought we were doing a good thing but wanted it neat and tidy. A line of more than 100 homeless individuals waiting to eat in the humidity of summer was not a way to ease the neighbors’s concerns. But as we relied on volunteers and needed food to be ready when guests arrived, I was hustling to make sure lunch was prepared.
Just before we were to open the doors, one of the men in line bolted to the front and rapped wildly at the window. Others were yelling for him to get back in line. I thought, what now? I feared someone would hit him. So I ran to the door, ready to tell him that whatever it was could wait until we got people inside. But he apologized and ask me to get a sheet or blanket. As we also sheltered people once a week, we had sheets and blankets available, but they were packed away. I asked why he needed a blanket in this suffocating heat. He pointed across the street to a woman in the line.
The woman had taken her blouse off and she was naked from the waist up. Muttering to herself, she was twisting at her skirt and the trousers underneath. The man at the door said, “I need something to cover her so she doesn’t get hurt.” I ran quickly and retrieved a sheet and blanket, which he quickly ran back to the line to wrap around the woman. Then he simply stood with others in line.
We were late in letting people in, so in marched the 100 or so folks to be served and listen to. As the man passed me on the way into the dining hall, he said, “Thank you.” I swallowed an impulse to cry. For this man revealed the compassion of Christ to cover someone who was exposed, to protect someone in their nakedness, and at risk to himself, broke the rules of the lunch time line. He taught me something about the reach of grace.
One of the regular volunteers from the church was a gentle man who came from a well heeled background, truly a cosmopolitan liberal Upper West Side New Yorker. He and his wife would quietly help at the Sunday lunch time meal and at the night time shelter later established. Many years after, I found out that he had been a well known correspondent during the civil war in Liberia and other war theatres.
One Sunday we were working a lunchtime meal together, and as we were washing up, he asked me why I worked with people who slept rough. In return I asked why he helped at the lunch-time meals and the shelter. He looked at me kindly and said, ‘There, but the grace of God go I.” I discovered in time that, despite his award winning reporting, he broke down seeing the carnage of war and began to drink. He found his way back through various recovery programs. He understood the thin tie that connects us to each other and gently, patiently draws us from being lost to being found: from exile to homecoming, from despair to hope. In just those few words, he embodied lunchtime grace.
During the weekdays, after the lunch program ended, we hosted a Bible study. Mostly, people simply wanted to stay inside, which was understandable, especially in the winter. A distinct variety of people came through those doors. At one gathering, a woman with tattoos and a few scars told me that one day she almost threw herself on the subway tracks because she had experienced enough. But as the New York subways are just under the streets, birds and butterflies as well as other creatures often find their way in. She told me that on that particular day a butterfly came and landed on her shoulder just for a few seconds and fluttered off. She closed her eyes and prayed. And in that moment, she felt it was a sign from God to keep going, not to end her life. I don’t know what happened to her, but she taught me that presence of grace was never too far away.
A women called Peaches, whom I saw frequently, came by one day, knocking insistently at the church window. I knew Peaches from the lunch-time meals. She was often in front of the line that formed every Sunday and Tuesday and Thursday outside on West 80th Street. Peaches told me stories of fishing in the Hudson River, dancing in her earlier years, and other wild times. In the first year I knew her, I could always smell alcohol on her breath, which inevitably caused her problems. I grew fond of her as she had an infectious warmth about her. But today she wanted me for something and was clearly anxious that I answer her quickly.
I went to the door and said, “Hi Peaches, are you okay?” She looked rather sheepishly and asked to speak to me privately. Inside, she asked me to buy something—a packet of ladies underwear. She asked them not for herself, but for some of the women she knew on the streets who came to the church meals. There was a large Woolworth’s store on Broadway not far from the church in those days. I got someone to cover my shift, ran over to Woolworth’s and bought as many packs of underwear as I could. I brought them back to the church and gave them to Peaches to give to the women she knew. She smiled. And thanked me. I thanked her in response. She taught me the grace to offer dignity in the midst of dereliction.
In the years of knowing Peaches, she would disappear for months and then return. I found out that she would find a dry-out centre and stay there for a while, especially during the winter months. One day, she arrived and told me she had stopped drinking and had a room now in one of the single-room occupancy buildings that dotted the Upper West Side at that time. She had gained weight and found a friend named Elwood. Elwood had been homeless and a substance abuser, but now he too was dry and sheltered. She and Elwood came to the lunch program often and together. Peaches and Elwood would help us clear the plates and clean the tables.
About five months latter, Peaches came to me again. Again she asked to speak to me privately, wondering if our church would officiate her marriage to Elwood. Soon after, Peaches met with one of the clergy and arranged a date. Before the wedding, she came to me excitedly and ask if I could type up a copy of her wedding invitation and make about 100 prints. She then passed the copies out to the people who lined up for the soup kitchen the next Sunday because her list of guests had no addresses to send such invitations. But they were invited.
They were invited into a celebration, into something good and joyful with people they knew. We had the wedding on a day when the lunchtime meal was served and got a huge cake to celebrate. That day, I was taught that any celebration was really about inviting all into your joy.