This is what swamp feet smell like.
Usually, the air is musty with snuffed out cigarettes and stale coffee – familiar and comforting like a sweater worn too many times. But today, a pungent smell slices through the mustiness. It becomes extra strong when Greg limps up next to me.
“Swamp feet,” he mutters, “Too much walking in this weather with wet boots.”
The recent warming melted the snow, leaving only slush for Greg to trudge through all day. Now, he is nursing his wounds in a wooden pew, putting on dry socks – finally.
I like sitting on the black swivel chair behind the front desk, quietly observing, quietly going over their names again in my head. This, too, is a form of prayer.
Sometimes, one of them approaches and asks, “Two peanut butters, please,” or “Do you have a pair of socks?”
I always ask for their name, because I think the hardest part of not having a home is losing your dignity along with that.
But, just like how in college, we would tell ourselves that our grades don’t define us, I like to think that their homelessness doesn’t define them either.
I try to imagine their stories, what brought them here.
Andrea wanders the pews as if on a mission. They say she has schizophrenia. “Didn’t go to church for you…just f– get away,” she rasps at the air beside her. Perhaps to her, a long-lost lover, maybe a family member who deserted her long ago.
Her voice is the only one reverberating in the church, the f bombs bouncing off the wooden rafters, over pews of people sleeping on the floor slats, wrapped in blankets.
The hurt is almost palpable; the ghosts of her past do not leave her.
My sister is visiting this weekend. So, I took her to eat at Mamie Clafoutis, a French pastry shop, where they sell the best croissants in town.
We were in the middle of a chocolate almond croissant, and the story of Achsah in Joshua 15:16-18 (yes, cafes are great places to do Bible study :D), when she raised a question that hung in the air:
You know how women didn’t have rights in ancient times, was God okay with that? And if He wasn’t, why didn’t He do anything about it?
The question for me is not just about ancient Israel, but it’s the one I turn over in my head, never really reaching a fully satisfactory answer.
Is God okay with poverty, with homelessness?
Why do some wander the streets with swamp feet? Why are many scarred by the church, so hurt they never want to go back? Why are we not able to ever fully escape the ghosts of the past?
Why is it so hard to feel Him sometimes, even though we desperately want to?
We feel the ache of injustice. It’s like the whole world is groaning, as in the pains of childbirth (Romans 8:22).
But, from what I do know of the God in the Bible, He is fierce for justice. He aches for it even more than we do.
I don’t have many answers, but I do know this:
Maybe the ache is good. It reminds us of what we long for. It reminds us of what is to come.
Maybe we are to sit in the ache, instead of trying to rid ourselves of it.
For someone who likes getting things done, it’s hard to just sit.
But I’m learning how to simply sit with people. To feel the ache with them instead of trying to move on to fixing their problems.
I see homeless people on the streets all the time, and my heart twinges every time I pass them, knowing that I can’t stop for everyone.
I’m finite, limited, and it takes humility to accept that.
But just like how I read scientific papers in the field and feel compelled to solve every biomedical problem out there (better chemotherapy, detection of metastasis, infectious diseases etc.), and yet nothing gets done until I define my specific problem and research project, I too need to define my specific calling here.
The specific people I am supposed to stop for.
Then, be brave enough to actually stop for them.
When I meet Louie at the Coop, he has a duffel bag full of Swiss chard and butter lettuce with him.
Dumpster diving, he tells me, I just go in to the dumpsters of supermarkets and fill my bag with whatever I can find.
I learn that he rides his bike everywhere, even with the ice-lined sidewalks and mountains of snow that could very easily derail your bike.
I don’t have enough money to ride the metro, or get snow tyres on, he says matter-of-factly, but I’m used to getting around.
You’re really brave, I reply with admiration. Facing the Montreal winters with a bike is an act of much courage.
He turns to look at me – his beard is scruffy and grown out, jeans cut off at the knees, but his eyes are gentle.
We are all a different kind of brave, he says, softly.
Maybe my kind of brave today is to sit and feel the ache of void that many feel everyday.
Because I believe this is where it starts – when our hearts start to move with compassion, and our lips start to whisper this prayer over our land:
Spirit of God
Breathe on Your church
Pour out Your presence
Speak through Your word
We pray in every nation, Christ be known
Our hope and salvation, Christ alone