Have you ever gone on a journey hoping to find one thing and then end up finding something you never imagined instead?
I retired recently and went on walkabout for a few weeks. I carried with me both the grief of having had to euthanize my beloved cat and the cancellation of a bucket list event. Then I drove for two nine-hour days in stifling heat with no AC in my car and sometimes torrential rain.
I arrived at my destination to find that the extended stay hotel with the airy studio apartment I’d booked was actually a mean, dirty, decrepit, dark room with resident grasshoppers and other bugs Oh, and I was the only actual “visitor”; most of the other inhabitants were young women and men who had no other place to live.
My first privileged reaction was to walk out and go to another hotel. I would not get a refund, but I couldn’t imagine staying in this place for two weeks.
My second reaction came from a slap upside my head by my conscious, or the Holy Spirit. A voice said to me, “You think you’re so compassionate and you talk about wanting to help the disinherited. Well, how can you help them if you have never lived like them?”
And though my privilege was there, because I knew I would be leaving eventually, I soon became for a short time part of a community of the marginalized, who welcomed me wholeheartedly and were not only willing, but sometimes eager, to share their stories with me.
There was the woman with a newborn baby and a 2 year old girl whose five other children had been taken from her by social services. She was barely 30 years old. She and the children and her new husband lived in one room. She passed much of her time in a camp chair on the balcony outside her room smoking and talking to her friends.
I became one of those friends and learned that she had her GED and had completed one year of college. She wanted to earn a degree so that she could work for an agency that helped women like her. She wanted to get her teeth fixed because she knew that no matter how intelligent she might be, her appearance would be judged in any job interviews.
She also wanted to get her children back.
Then there was the young woman with the 1-year-old who had a full set of teeth and the biggest eyes I’ve ever seen. She also had a dry skin condition that prescribed lotion was not helping. The mother’s fiancé lived with them there and abused her physically and verbally. If she was talking with us, she would run off to their shuttered room when she knew he was about to come back. She didn’t dare have him her talking to us.
She came to trust me such that when another toddler got out of her room early in the morning, she handed off the 1-year-old to me to hold while she helped the other mother find her child.
Then there were the gaggle of children whose playground in the darkening evenings was the parking lot who offered to help me with my luggage when I first arrived. There was the young woman who laughed a lot and swore a lot and wore T-shirts with somewhat naughty messages on them. There was the handyman who had an advanced degree in linguistics. There was the woman who never smiled and complained a lot.
There were dogs and cats; one cat sat in the window of its owner’s room most of the time, a black cat that looked just like my Onyx, who I had had to watch the life seep out of a short time before.
There were hopes and dreams everywhere, and I listened to them and prayed with and for the women and children who let me in. I was asked my advice, which I gave hesitantly because in the wisdom of the world they lived in, I was a neophyte.
The people I met were of all colors and ethnic backgrounds. Yet whatever issues there might have been in this microcosm of society, none of them were to do with racism. So here are people who have their problems, their virtues, and their faults, out but not down, who could be creating the New Jerusalem. I do not mean to idealize poverty, but as this was during the time of the Kavanaugh-Blasey Ford hearings, and Kavanaugh’s assumption that he deserved whatever he wanted. I celebrated the humility I met in my hotel.
I thought when I arrived that I could barely wait until I could leave. When I left, I didn’t want to.
I don’t know what I’ll do with what I learned, but I believe that it was very important that I learn it and that I will be asked to use that knowledge someday. I hope that I will be up to the task.