“Do you have a cigarette?” the young woman muttered as I walked out of our local hospital. I didn’t even glance her way. She persisted, “Can I get a ride into town?” My guard was up; I had just experienced the hurt and disappointment that comes from trusting a practiced liar. That person managed to take money from me and from members of my church before we realized she was simply conning us for whatever she could get. That incident left me wary.
So who was this person approaching me at 7:15 a.m. on a frigid weekday? When I finally looked closely at her, I saw a young woman just few years older than my children. I was glad to see she was wearing a winter coat, hat, and gloves, but she looked tired. She smelled faintly of alcohol.
“Are you all right?” I asked. She rejected my offer of a cup of coffee or a breakfast sandwich, insisting that a cigarette would start her day off right. I drove her the short distance into town. She got her cigarettes and lit one with shaking hands.
“I’m on my way to go grocery shopping,” I informed her.
“I can wait for you,” she said. She seemed lonely and at loose ends, without any plan for the day ahead.
She perched on a chair in the store’s coffee area while I gathered supplies for Christmas cookies. As she helped me load my groceries into my car, I asked, “Now what? It’s too cold to stay outside.”
When I asked about family or friends, she explained that her boyfriend “wasn’t that nice” and she didn’t think her family would welcome a phone call from her. I put on my best mother voice as I assured her that even when I’m mad at my children, I still want to know they are safe and cared for. She was unconvinced.
“Do you want to go to the homeless shelter?” I was certain that suggestion would shake her out of her indecision. Instead, she agreed that was the best course.
During the 20 minute drive to the shelter, she kept me amused with her description of growing up in our area, studying at community college, even attending our church’s Fourth of July Jamboree. My heart ached for her as she casually confessed she was an alcoholic with little hope for the future.
The shelter’s in-take clerk was brisk and to the point:
- Arrest and sex offender lists are checked before entry.
- No smoking, no drinking
- Inside hours are 8 PM to 8 AM. After that, everyone needs to be outside.
I realized just how little I was giving her. She had a warm place to sleep that night but had a long, cold day ahead of her. I gave her my name and phone number and encouraged her to call. I described de-tox programs that could help her and counselors who could offer guidance. I don’t know if I’ll ever hear from her again.
What I wanted, of course, was a happy ending. I wanted to solve her problems and help her find a safer, healthier path. Instead, I was left a lingering sadness and unsettling glimpse of a difficult life.
Will my small gestures help? Maybe. Maybe we are all pieces of a much bigger puzzle. Maybe someone else will offer her another helping hand. And then another and another. Maybe each one will add up to make a difference.
Just because we cannot solve a problem is not a reason to hesitate to do what we can.
There are needs all around us. One way we share God’s light is by offering our hands and our hearts. Let us do what we can to help one another on the journey.