North Street is a place I have actively avoided and here my church is asking me to go out and pray on that very street. Pastor Marquez thought the busy street to be an important place to access more of the community, to pray for them. My friend Jackson was killed on that very street almost seven years ago now. North Street is known for its high crime rate. “That’s exactly why we need to go,” the Pastor would say. I’ll probably end up praying for the man who ran Jackson over. The thought fueled my anger at the world and whoever decided to run this event in August while the sun is at its peak.
The church had a colorful welcoming tent set up at the grocery store parking lot, the busiest spot on the street. Our evangelism director began to split us into job groups and of course she calls my name for prayer. Great. I would’ve much preferred to give away free “Jesus Loves Me” books. She sends me back down the street to the front of the barbershop towards the exact center of North Street.
I stand in this spot for hours under the blazing sun, blaming this damn street for the heat I feel. Interactions were few and unfruitful. A black guy came up earlier saying he needed prayer because he’s a sinner, but with an uncomfortable flirting undertone in his voice, I ignored him. A Spanish guy came up from the drug pick-up in front of the bakery. I ask him what he needs prayer for and he says, “everything’s good.” He’s fine and I pray. I notice the cuts on his arms too late.
About two hours into my heat-induced inner tantrum, you walk by the front of the barbershop. I watch as you walk by, and in my inconsideration I didn’t even stop you. Thank God another woman from the church felt it in her heart to stop you and direct you to me. You stand there so tall and full. There lies a fierce softness to the features on your face. Your soft brown hair is badly cut. A glimmer behind your eyes melts the anger I surrendered myself to all day. Without saying a word, you draw me to take time with you.
I hesitantly begin to speak, unsure of what to say to you. I ask you what you’re doing on this street, and you tell me that you take walks to help ease your anger, to clear your mind. You tell me you live on Glenn St, all the way across town! The cracks and wavering tones of your voice give me a sense of your struggle as you speak. The quickness of your speech, the eagerness to release your words, or maybe the affliction behind them makes it clear to me that you need this. So, for the first time all day, I really take the time and listen.
There is sadness behind everything you say, yet no complaints reach my ears as you tell me about your last few months.
You tell me about the Jehovah’s Witness boy who turned away from you and broke your heart—I hate him too. You tell me about the art scholarship you had to give up because the other things around you became too important and with each burden you reveal that life has brought upon you, my heart breaks.
Your parents gone. Abused. Pregnant.
What seems to be a thirty-year journey you have lived in only seventeen. Seventeen! Seventeen and a guardian to your nine siblings. I think of myself at seventeen and how the worst I had to deal with was the death of my friend. But even that doesn’t compare to what you have to live through. And I admire that you continue to.
You eventually admit that you haven’t eaten in three days, and we release our hands, which I don’t think either one of us remembers grabbing in the first place, and walk down the street to the McDonald’s to get you food. I just want to grab your hand again and hold it tightly. As if by some medium holding your hand will take your pain away, take away all your problems. As if that moment of comfort can reach beyond our time together. It’s absolutely ridiculous, but I don’t want you to leave. I don’t want to let you go back into a world where a seventeen-year-old works three jobs and takes care of nine children. But still we get your food, reach the stoplight, and I do not reach for your hand.
Before you leave I hand you my phone and ask you to type your name and address; the shared information is a hope to be more than strangers beyond this encounter. As you walk away, I can’t help but think of what you’re going through and how you continue to push forward. You needed a stranger who would stop and ask about all the things that you’re dealing with. Someone who would listen, who would show you love, a friend. You may have needed that time to talk, but I needed the words you shared more. Looking down at my phone I read your name: