Some months ago, I got to be friends with a young woman (late teens, early twenties) who was living in a residential program — let’s call her Jane Doe (I’ve changed her name and a few other minor details in the story so that Jane — and others — can remain anonymous).
Jane was one of the ones who really break your heart. She tried so hard and so had such a tender heart for the people around her… it’s just that she was addicted to crack, and — since she was staying in a residential program that operated on something like a “three strikes and you’re out” system — her love for her drug was causing her some problems with her housing. I mean, she was trying hard to stay clean but she still enjoyed getting high too much. So, despite the fact that she cleaned up for several months, I learned one day that Jane had started going out in the evening and not coming back all night because she was using. I always worried when Jane went on her binges, she’s a young and beautiful woman and she would walk alone through the alleyways in the downtown eastside searching for her next hit. Not a good place for her to be.
One night I was at work and I heard that Jane had disappeared again. All night I waited for a call to tell me that Jane had come back but morning came and she was still missing. I decided that I would go and look for her. I figured I would do a run through the parks and alleys and down the main strip before I went home to bed. In fact, every now and again I get the feeling like the Spirit is really hassling me to do something and this was one of those times.
So, after I finished work, I headed to the park across the street in order to cut from there into one of the major alleys. Lo and behold, Jane was sitting alone on one of the benches in the park. I had been looking for less than a minute and I had found her (again, I think the Spirit was at work)! I sat down beside her and we started to talk. She told me about being robbed that night, she told me about nearly getting raped in a hotel room, she told me that she had been sitting on that bench for hours debating between going back and trying to beg for her bed (she was worried that she had lost her room permanently since she was out of strikes) or saying “forget that” and going out and continuing to use. She was unable to make any decision and so she had sat there, feeling paralysed, and watched the sun come up.
“You know, Dan, when I walk down those alleyways, the cops will roll by and they’ll lean out the windows and call to me, ‘go home, little girl, go home.’ Because, I don’t look like I belong in an alleyway in the downtown eastside. And that’s what always gets me into trouble. The guys will give me free drugs and neglect their women hoping to get with me and, because of this, the women are always looking to start things with me.”
I thought about that for a moment and said:
“It’s true, Jane, you don’t look like somebody who would be in an alley in the eastside at night. But I’ll tell you this much, if you spend a little more time down there, you’re going to start looking like you belong there and pretty soon the cops will drive by you without saying a word because you’ll no longer be that blue eyed, blond kid, you’ll just be another junkie scanning the cracks in the asphalt hoping to find a lost [crack] rock.”
We both stopped talking for a little while after that — I think we were both scared that what I had said would come true. Then the conversation started up again and Jane decided she would go back to her program after I guaranteed her that I would make sure that she wouldn’t lose her bed (and, thank God, she didn’t lose her bed). Just after making this decision, a fellow sat down on the bench beside ours, pulled out a pipe and started smoking a rock. We got out of there pretty quick. I realized that if I had come even fifteen minutes later, Jane would have been lost, there’s no way somebody in her state can resist the pull of the drug when another person lights up right beside her.
We walked around a bit, I bought Jane a pack of smokes, and then took her back to her program.
A few weeks later Jane left for a treatment program on the east coast and that was the last I saw of her. A few months went by, and then one morning I got a phone call at work. It was Jane and she was doing amazingly well. She had gotten clean and she was training to be a mentor in the program she had joined! She wanted me to know that she was doing well, and she wanted to say thanks to me for coming out and finding her that night. She told me that’s what pushed her over the edge and made her start putting her life back together. I was speechless. It did my heart a world of good to hear from Jane. It reminded me of the story in the Gospels that tells about Jesus healing ten lepers and only one coming back to say thanks. Maybe, I thought to myself, maybe there is more transformation going on here then I dared to hope. Maybe for every Jane there’s another nine who have made it that we never hear about (of course, the analogy doesn’t totally work, I’m not Jesus, and I’m not healing people like Jesus healed people — when anything good comes out of my actions it is because of the Spirit, and not because of me).
Such a simple gesture of love — going out to find a person, be with them and bring them home when they’re ready — had quite a profound impact. And here’s the thing: when I think back to my time of being street-involved, and when I think about the ways in which people tried to care for me, the one thing that stands out, far above everything else, was something my best friend “Curty” did for me. I was living with him at the time but I was pretty messed up. I couldn’t really handle being around groups of people and so, when we would have people over, I would usually wait a bit and then sneak out the door and just walk the streets. Curty would always notice that I had left and he too would sneak out and find me. He would never really say anything, he would just fall into stride with me and we would walk around all night, not really talking, just being together. I never felt more loved than I did when he caught up to me, walked with me, and eventually walked me home.
Curty found me, stayed with me, and came home with me; I found Jane, stayed with her, and walked home with her — and it seems that those events have transformed both Jane and I. Maybe if Christians started practicing a little more of this kind of love — instead of getting completely absorbed in programs, objectives, pragmatics, and goals (which aren’t bad in and of themselves, but which also are not the all in all of journey with those on the margins) — maybe then we would see a little more of the transformation for which we long. Let us become like the Father in the story of the prodigal son, let us run out on the road to meet those whom God loves so dearly. Let us go to where the wolves are so that we can find the lost sheep and help them to come back to the shepherd.