It’s day 6 of living without money – a unique predicament I found myself in after the unfortunate incident last Sunday.
Two days ago, I tried to replace my metro card but when the lady behind the guichet tersely asked for the fifteen dollars card replacement fee, I had to embarrassedly admit that I didn’t have close to that amount on me, nor the bright green rectangle of plastic that usually takes care of my finances.
Pulling my jacket hood over my head, I readied myself to brave the swirling winds of the Montreal winter.
No metro for me today.
Strange thing was, in a world where the amount of green paper and plastic rectangles is said to dictate your happiness, I woke up each morning not any less happy than the days I had a full wallet.
Almost in disbelief that I had survived another day, like I was defying some kind of universal law by being alive and well, but penniless.
Instead, I was learning that there were quite a few wonderful things to be done without a need for money, and found the challenge of not having any pushing me to do them.
For starters, I scoured my cupboard for a spaghetti squash I had squirrelled away after finding it in my bi-weekly produce basket after not knowing what to do with it. Apparently, after roasting it in the oven for an hour, the flesh scoops out like spaghetti strands. A magical vegetable.
Sunday was spent hiding away in a corner of the Indigo bookstore across from church, freely perusing the religion section, and after speed-scanning many blurbs, finally deciding on “Fierce-hearted” by Holley Gerth. An hour later, I exited the store, full from words and grateful for books.
After using up my rationed stock of eggs and milk, I defrosted the Ziploc of frozen bananas my parents had gifted me with during their last visit, and proceeded to look up a recipe for vegan banana bread. To my utter delight, the result elicited generous compliments from the lab members I shared it with, one of whom had just converted to a plant-based diet and so, making the bread vegan was in fact perfect for him.
I created these special moments and more, as each miracle day brought with it its own surprises, sinking me deeper into free and freeing grace.
Could this have been the freedom Jesus was inviting the rich young man into when he told him to sell his possessions and come follow Him?
Could it be that through physical poverty, we are humbled to see the real state of our spiritual poverty, and so more deeply understand why the gospel is extravagant?
I meet Jenny this past week. It’s during my regular volunteer shift at the art cafe when she walks up behind me.
“Can you tell me where Portage is?” Her oversized jacket hangs in lumps around her, and I see her fingers, swollen and crusted over.
“Portage?” I ask quizzically.
“It’s a drug rehabilitation centre. I need to get off the streets. It’s getting too cold.” Her answers are matter-of-fact, chopped bluntly.
Pulling up Google Maps on my computer, I invite her to take a seat and use my computer.
She stands back awkwardly, “I don’t know how to use a computer.”
I try to imagine for a moment what it is like not to know how to use a computer. Whenever I have needed something – directions, recipes, entertainment – the computer has always had the answer. But for someone who doesn’t know how to press keys or enter a search into Google, how would you go to school, buy a house, make friends…
“How have you been doing?” I ask, genuinely concerned.
“Yeah, well, like, some of my friends have died sleeping on the street. You just freeze like that. And you know how I like to sleep with my fingers curled up like this?” she demonstrates, curling her fingers up, exposed against her chin.
“I mean, I don’t mean to sleep like that. That’s just how I sleep. And when I wake up, my fingers are frozen. So I said, I just gotta do something about this drug problem. But it’s hard, you know?”
I write the directions to the rehabilitation centre on a Post-it and give them to her, wishing her well.
She closes her crusted fingers over the Post-it, folded up, and smiles gratefully at me.
“I’ll come back once I get off the drugs and say hi. I’ll be back,” she says.
I think a lot about Jenny this past week.
Each time I peer into a Starbucks decked out in its Christmas gear and wish I was inside warming my hands on a grande mocha, I think of Jenny and how she must peer into stores, wishing for a cup of coffee.
Or at the students typing furiously away at their laptops, wishing she knew how to use one to look up where she needed to go. Or at people coming back from work turning keys into doors, wishing she had a place to call home.
I think if Jesus died so we can be set free, then surely He must want Jenny to be free from the chains of poverty and addiction. Surely He desires to give her a warm place to sleep where her fingers won’t freeze.
I think of the Toronto constable who called me last week, his voice lined with the tiredness of years arresting criminals:
We caught the people who broke into your car on Sunday. They’ve been doing this for decades, hardened criminals that are probably gonna go into jail for a month and come back out again just to go back to it. The courts are just soft when there’s a drug problem.
So you’ve arrested them before?
And I think that surely, Jesus died to set them free from a vicious cycle of drug and crime.
So, this week, my heart weighs heavy with the brokenness of criminal justice system, the hopelessness of addiction-poverty cycles and my inability to help in any way other than scribble down the address of a rehabilitation centre on a yellow Post-it.
I read a passage from “At Home in this World” by Tsh Oxenreider and it resonates with a part of me:
I have embarked on this year of travel, at age 37, feeling less confident than I did a decade ago about what I believe to be true, and how that truth intersects with who I am. I am weary from game playing and formulaic answers, and the evangelical-Christian hat that I have worn daily with every outfit since I was 14 feels too small, headache inducing. I fidget daily in its discomfort, but I don’t know how to exchange it, how it should be resized.
The formulaic answers I’ve learned from young seem small and trivial to speak to the depths of this pain, this aching.
There is a more real answer. If the gospel is true, then surely it is earth-shaking, and I desperately want God to break the bounds within which I have confined Him, the predictive formulas I think He works by.
Perhaps He can empower me to do something more than just pray silently.
I feel like I may be on the brink of something, although I have no idea what it is.
All I know is that being with the poor, living poor for a week, has brought me closer to the gossamer interface where heaven meets earth.
My heart yearns to bridge that unfathomable gap, but in all my finiteness, I mouth the words sung over the centuries by other God-seekers, justice-hunters – the only chance we have at hope:
For He has not ignored or belittled the suffering of the needy. He has not turned his back on them, but has listened to their cries for help.
The poor will eat and be satisfied. All who seek the Lord will praise him. Their hearts will rejoice with everlasting joy.
Psalm 22:24, 26