Maria. We will call her name Maria to protect her identity in the telling of this story written by Sean Warren – Pastor of Community Engagement + Guest Services.

This morning we opened the summer cooling station here at the church and our guests started trickling in. Some are dropped off, others own not so gently used cars, and of course there are those who just come by foot. Maria came in leaving her car/home in the parking lot. When she walked in, she was warmly greeted by our church staff and the staff of the Salvation Army….greeted by name. (Something you don’t often think about, but many people experiencing homelessness don’t have someone to call them by name.)

“How you doing Maria?”
“I am blessed!” (Maria has just completed a night shift as a roaming fill in for a local gas station chain.)

As Maria entered the room she looked through a small rack of t-shirts that are free for the taking. Her eyes spied the “I love the 80’s” shirt and a big smile came over her face.

“That’s when I was a teenager!”

Maria takes the slightly smaller shirt then she should actually wear and starts to stretch it out. I ask what kind of music did she listen to back in the day, and she is quick to say Madonna, Cindy Lauper, Duran Duran, Michael Jackson….etc. She then makes a statement about Michael Jackson.

”I think he must have been abused as a child. Growing up on the road. No one looking out for him…I think that is why he must have done some of the things he did.”

I nodded in agreement, and said, “Yep, there was definitely something wrong there.”

Then she says, with the volume of her voice dropping, “I too was abused. It wasn’t by my father, he died when I was three. It was by my mom’s boyfriend. I was four.”

Not anticipating such a quick and brutally transparent statement, all I could say was,
“I am so sorry Maria, that shouldn’t have ever happened to you.”
Maria gently nodded her head in agreement.

Then for the next fifteen minutes, Maria became a stream of consciousness laying out before me the road that has brought her to this cooling station. Her mom and dad legally came over the boarder for work when she was very little, but her father died and her mother was left to scramble with her children. One aunt took her oldest sister, and she and her smaller sister went with mom.

“My mom didn’t really marry this guy. I don’t know if she really loved him, I just think that she didn’t want to be alone.”

It also went through my mind that it was a move of survival…no money, a different country, no family around, what do you do? At least that guy gave them shelter and food. But that man was also a predator. And a young Maria was powerless.

Maria then talked about how she cared for her younger sister and protected her. She said her mother had to work multiple jobs, so she was the mother of her sister. She said,

“When I was thirteen I told my sister about Jesus, and she became a Christian. She still thanks me to this day for telling her about Jesus when we are on the phone.”

She turns her head and starts to wipe tears that are coming down her face. I ask if she ever gets to see her sister. She said no, she lives very far away. When I asked her about her own family, she stated that she has three children. One son used drugs and became schizophrenic. She doesn’t know where he is, he too is homeless somewhere. She has another daughter who is married with two children and one on the way but they had to move into temporary housing. She then stated, I could never live with them, they need to have their own lives, and I don’t want to be a burden to them. She then tells me of her last daughter, who somehow became a nurse. She only occasionally talks to her…she says,

“I call her and say, ‘Baby I love you so much, I’m proud of you.’ She tells me she loves me too, but she is really busy, and we don’t have time to talk.”

My heart feels the pain of the daughter….she is glad she escaped, she doesn’t know what to talk about, but she loves her mother. Maria stated that she did some drugs years ago, and did time in prison. She then said,

“I don’t know why, I’ve just been so angry over the years.”

Maria then begins to quote scripture and talks about life choices. She states that she wishes more people around her would change their life by accepting Jesus…and then she talks about how life is so good for her, and how blessed she is.

I told her Jesus has this cot for her, this food, and cool space for her to rest today.
She continued to talk about how blessed she was…

I believe Maria is an example of the complexity of one person’s story. Multiple cultures, languages, death, abandonment, abuse, vulnerability, missing family, ambiguity, anger, addiction, incarceration, motherhood, hard working, sacrifice, loss, hope in despair, perseverance, fear and the struggle to be seen or heard.

If we could only have magical sunglasses to see things as they really are, the ability to know the true context of the soul standing before us, I am confident our hearts would break, our compassion would flow, and the desire to do more would increase. We would recognize this it is infinity more complex then the headline or sound bite….it’s a human that needs hope.

Recently I read this quote.

“People don’t walk around with signs. But everyone’s struggling with something. When we are mindful of this, we are gentler with others. When we forget this, we abandon our humanity.”

Matthew Kelly – Life is Messy

God, make us into the compassionate humans we need to be.