By Katie Teal, UNG
I work in the nursery at a Presbyterian church on Sunday’s and sometimes during the week I go over to the church to organize the nursery or just to have a quiet space to decompress or study. I was there a couple of weeks ago with the 15 month old I watch during the week when I heard a knock on the front door of the church. This church sits on a hill just off of the downtown square and is a small parish and it is unusual for anyone to come by the church during the week. I walked to the front of the church and saw a woman tentatively opening the door. She couldn’t see me yet, and called out “Hello, I need help!” I ushered her in to the church asking what she needed, assuming she was physically hurt and needed medical attention. That would have been easier to deal with, a call to 911 and a promise for prayers but she needed food, shelter, gas for her car. She needed more than a phone call. She needed comfort and the bare necessities we so often take for granted. She told me bits of her story in between sighs and holding back tears. Her husband had passed away recently and she was looking for food and shelter. She’d been living with her son but they lost their home. She didn’t say how long she had been walking, but her car was out of gas and she looked weary.
I have volunteered at soup kitchens, food drives, clothes drives and all other manner of supporting programs that provide for those in need but this was the first time I was the initial contact for someone looking for help. I did everything I could in that moment but I feel as though I failed this woman. That everything was not enough.
After speaking with this woman for a couple of minutes and offering her water and a place to sit, I called a member of the church to see what help was available to offer. I was told to direct her to The Community Helping Place, which is the local organization that services the homeless and needy. I called CHP but did not get an answer for any of their lines so I left messages. As I frantically dialed numbers, my phone in one hand and a baby in the other, I thought for the first time of my safety. How did I know this woman was being honest? And I felt ashamed. As a Christian, I have been taught to see God in the face of strangers, to provide hospitality to those in need, but the world has taught me to be cautious and see danger in the face of a stranger. How do I reconcile this? And when did I come to live in this world of doubt? When did I leave behind the little girl I once was who spoke to strangers as though they were old friends and never hesitated to help someone? Has the world changed or have I? I no longer wanted to be alone in the church with this woman who was only seeking help.
I feel like I failed this woman with my doubt and inability to offer more than a phone call. Every church in town is told to direct people to the Community Helping Place because they have resources to access a person’s need and provide more long term care. But in that moment, that did not seem like enough. This woman was standing enough front of me burdened with the weight of grief and uncertainty and that unanswered phone call would do nothing to help support her. As she walked away with nothing more than a piece of paper with the CHP phone number scribbled on it, I felt sick to my stomach. I offered what I could but it was not enough. I do not know if that woman found food and shelter. I do not know if she is still hungry and cold.
I have struggled since then to come to terms with what happened. I have been told by several people that I did all I could and not to beat myself but the image of that woman walking away empty handed makes that hard to do. I am disheartened that the procedures seem to be aimed at protecting the helper from scams rather than simply providing help. I know logically this makes since but in my heart I fear I wasn’t able to help someone who desperately needed it. I am not naïve enough to think every person who knocks is sincere in their pleas but I would rather give to every person who asks than risk turning away someone in need. Is the world so dangerous and cold that we have to be this cautious or have we been so blinded by the negative cases that we can no longer see that the good in this world far out ways the bad?