I could still smell Gorta on my hands as I got into my car to leave the park on Saturday: she had grown so much in the two weeks that I had not seen her. Her human mom complained. ‘She is getting big, huh? She thinks she is the boss!’
I held the pup by the collar and said softly, ‘Gorta, sit,’ whilst pushing gently just above her tail until she did. She leaned on my feet and looked up at me with bright eyes as I blew gently into her nose. I think she was as happy as I.
Despite the musty, dirty smell left on my hands from rubbing her, it was one of the most joyous moments of my Saturday morning.
Ms. Viv was wearing a dress that would have been perfect for an evening on the town, the silver sparkles down the front danced as she walked in the morning sunlight. She hugged me and we chatted for a few minutes. My friends were late, but Ms. Dee, one of the other volunteers, had arrived with some items to give away. She drove her brother’s car, which had been rear-ended by a drunk driver. We held the trunk open so the gathered people could take what they wanted.
Nearly 40 minutes late, my friends arrived. Pastor was angry and upset, having received a large ticket earlier in the week. He had no permit and the police suggested he do his giveaway at the church, which he was determined to do going forward.
The church is about 31 blocks north of the park. Everyone there seemed disappointed that he had no hot food, no coffee, and would not be coming back to the park in future.
They were not alone.
I spent as much time with Gorta as I could and talked with Ms. Pinky and others there. One young woman and her family arrived a bit late — she had been at the record expunge and job fair at my church and someone had filmed her story about getting a felony removed from her record and obtaining a job that day. I told her that she was famous, that I had seen the video. She beamed with pride: ‘I got burned on my first day and don’t have that job no more, but guess what? It was a step toward what I need. I was able to pay some bills with that day’s pay and I got into a program that will help me finish my CNA training. The enemy is not gonna stop me!’ She hugged me and asked me what time I went to service as we talked about the church. I encouraged her to get that CNA so if I got a boo-boo I knew who I could come to for help. She and her husband smiled and waved as they left.
Pastor packed up and prepared to leave the park for the last time. He planned to use his church only return to a later time of day to give away food on Saturday mornings — 10 am to noon — and had us hand out business cards with the church address on it. He walked away as if it mattered not that the church was inaccessible for most of the people who live in the park. I wanted to yell, I told you so! but did not. I had encouraged him, time and again, to move his truck over to where the other churches and organizations set up. Just that morning, there were three churches, side by side, on the south street bordering the park. He always refused. I told his wife that I would ask my church if they had a permit and so on, since they do giveaways in that park all the time. However, it seemed a moot point since Pastor had already decided not to come back.
When I went to service yesterday, I met a man from the downtown location of the church who worked with several outreach ministries; I gave him a note with my contact information for the outreach team who went to the parks. I told him what happened with my friends and he laughed. ‘We have been doing it in the park for like 14 years; the cops don’t mess with us no more.’ He explained that the outreach folks at our church get together at 8 am on Saturdays and go from location to location, depending on how much stuff they have. ‘If they run out early, they stop, but if they don’t have a lot of people come for the first or second place, they just keep going. There are about four or five places we regularly go.’ He said he would text me where they are meeting next week.
I feel like I can’t walk away from my friends all together, but my heart is filled with sorrow that they can so easily leave the park. Where the church was located before, there were various homeless encampments within walking distance. Since the city took their property for warehousing, they moved the church but continued to go where there was the greatest need. Now, because of a fine and warnings about how dangerous the park is — as if it suddenly became dangerous because the police labeled it so … it’s been dangerous for years! — Pastor is retreating.
During service yesterday, our assistant pastor spoke about going to an outreach event where homeless folks were given clothing, shoes, and food. He said something like, ‘The opportunity to go to an outreach event where we help people gives me a chance to fall in love with God all over again.’ His point was that a church that only exists within its own four walls is not fulfilling the mission. Christ had a church without walls where he encountered everyone just where they were; it mattered not how they lived. Christ spent time with those who needed it the most and if we claim to be Christ-followers, that is our job as well.
I wait with anticipation to get the text from my church brother because my heart will yearn to see my friends at the park if I do not. I will make time to go to my other friends’ church, to see how they are doing within their safe spaces. I know there are homeless and needy people near the church as well, which is right next to several apartment complexes and areas of need, but to walk away from those who are unsheltered and who rely on not only the food but the fellowship as well that the ministry brought to the park each week is painful to me.
I can’t just walk away.