Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Don't Talk to Strangers!

That's the phrase we hear from the time we can walk. Don't talk to strangers. Kick and scream if someone picks you up on the street. Don't look strangers in the eye. Check the back seats of your car before you get in. Have your keys out and ready as soon as you're outside the grocery store. Don't turn around on the sidewalk if you realize you're going the wrong way - go around the block so you don't look lost. Walk with a purpose. Keep one hand on your purse.

To a degree, these are (unfortunately) necessities of life as a woman. For those who question the concept of male privilege, here it is: even though a man can be raped, it's probably not on the forefront of his thoughts. He doesn't think about it when a car slows down beside him. He doesn't have pamphlets shoved at him explaining how he can "help prevent rape" by not wearing pony tails or going to the store alone at night. (Actually, most rapes happen during the hours of 10 a.m.-3 p.m., and most rapists know their victims, but that's a story for another day). Women have grown up with this hammered into our heads.

I know I did, perhaps more than those who grew up in suburbia. We lived in a "bad part of town" where the pizza delivery wouldn't come for fear of getting robbed. It wasn't as dangerous as folks made it out to be, but there were risks, and there was crime. If my mother was over-protective, I can't blame her. Wouldn't you do the same for your only child, a daughter, if you lived next door to a crack house, down the street from a house of prostitution, across the street from an apartment used for enormous drunken parties? The consequence was that I knew about rape before I knew about consensual sex. That is, I knew that a man (or a woman, but this wasn't said) could force himself onto a woman (or a man, but this wasn't said), and that he could force his penis into her vagina (I thought of it as "my hole,") and that this was rape. Years later I learned that this is a terrible definition of rape, but as late as 2009 it was the definition of rape as conjured by the state of Georgia. Bottom line, I knew about sexual crime before I knew about sexual love. And as a little girl, I knew that my weakness could be exploited by others for this purpose. Best to avoid eye contact, walk on the opposite side of the street, only walk with the dog or another person, walk briskly with arms at my side to exude confidence and strength. When inside I felt the exact opposite.

Fast forward to 2012, when as a newly wed I moved to Washington D.C. My apartment is in a nice part of Northern Virginia, though of course we are close to some "sketchy" areas. My church and job are both in the business district of northwest Washington, and I have never felt in danger there even at night. Washington has gentrified over the last decade, with both positive and negative results. So when my mom expressed concern that I was "in the big city," I laughed and told her I'd never lived in a safer place.

There was one thing I had to get used to though: the homeless. (Gag, I hate that phrase, "the homeless," like they're some kind of monolithic creature that sits outside the metro with a sign, an older man with grey beard who fought in Vietnam and has PTSD and drug addiction. That's the image, isn't it? But I digress). I wasn't really used to being in good urban neighborhoods - those don't exist in the South very often. Good neighborhoods were gated communities in the burbs with little upper middle class white families, maybe a few gay couples for diversity if you live in Atlanta. "Vital" (which means wealthy people shop and work there) urban neighborhoods were outside of my frame of reference, and thus I was shocked by the presence of business executives walking past homeless men and women seated on the sidewalk covered in blankets.

And as a good little white girl, I did what I was taught: eyes ahead, unbroken stride. There was a woman who stood at the corner across from my office every day, and as luck would have it I always had to wait on the walk sign when she was there. I never spoke to her, never even looked at her openly.  She would mutter to herself and sometimes say random things to passers-by, and no one ever responded. So I followed suit.

The first time I responded to a homeless man in DC, I couldn't even bring myself to speak or look in his face. He kept repeating that he was hungry, that he hadn't eaten in 2 days, and something about his insistence struck my conscience. I ducked in the CVS, bought a bag of pretzels, and set it beside him, not even placing it in his hands or asking if he wanted it. And then he yelled at me, "I don't have any teeth!" And then I looked, and he had no teeth, and pretzels were about the worst thing I could have given. And I was so embarrassed, and felt so awkward, that I turned away and walked off as quickly as possible. Because people were starting to look at us, and my desire for anonymity was more important than this man's dignity and life.

My takeaway was that I'd best mind my own business.

I clung to this notion until winter of that year. I had begun going to this beautiful Episcopal church downtown, and it quickly became my lifeline. It offered low Mass every day and a breathtaking solemn Mass on Sunday that fed my soul in every way possible. When you come in on a weekday the nave is so silent that you can actually hear the holy water ripple when you dip your fingers in it. And somehow in the midst of all these "papist trappings" like incense and candles and chant, I began to open my heart to the Holy Spirit, that frightening voice that I had mixed up with OCD and trauma as a teenager.

One day, He spoke with an authority I could not ignore. I had sat in the pew before Sunday Mass, and no sooner had I taken off my coat than He ordered me to put it on again and go outside. In no uncertain terms, I was to walk down the street to the homeless man that I always ignored, who sat with a sign every Sunday a couple of blocks away, and I was to speak to him. It was awkward, and I probably sounded as out of my league as I felt, but I learned his name. More importantly, it broke my orthodoxy about strangers, and I immediately felt a burden drop from my shoulders. I'll admit though, I was also scared. Now that I knew that it was possible to talk to a homeless person, to introduce yourself, to shake their hand and chat for a minute, there was no knowing what the limit was. The future was scary and exciting and unknown, and my introverted self knew that once God got His way once He wasn't going to stop.

What I didn't know was that it was to be one of the most wonderful blessings I could have received. What I didn't know was that my fear had more to do with self-consciousness than it did with security, that at my core I dreaded inconvenience, the messy reality of living side by side with those who lack the things I take for granted. I liked my controlled environment until I realized it was hell.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even to an animal.... The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. - C.S. Lewis 

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