It is the afternoon of Friday, May 11th. I put on my 2018 Servolution t-shirt, which reads:
“SERVE. THE CITY. THE ONE. City Life Philly”
I walk to South Philly High School, or “Southern” as locals call it. City Life Church (my church!) is in the home stretch of “Servolution,” an annual, week-long event, the goal of which is to “unleash radical generosity by touching thousands of people through random acts of kindness.”
The service project I’ve chosen to participate in this year is throwing an after-school party for the students at Southern—complete with food, balls and giant Frisbees to play with, and a DJ playing dance music. Life is difficult for many of the kids who attend this school, so it feels good to give them an hour or two of fun—hopefully making them forget their troubles and feel like someone cares. The party is a success: the weather is sunny but cool, the food is tasty, the music is catchy, and everyone seems to be having a great time—I know I am! (I even learned some new dances today: the Whip Nae Nae and the Cupid Shuffle!) The event is over too quickly for me, though. And I’ve had so much fun, that I don’t feel as if I’ve really served.
As the party breaks up, we realize we have a lot of sandwiches left over, so it is decided that several volunteers will pass them out at Broad and Snyder, while several others will distribute the rest at City Hall. I jump at the chance to put a bit more “serve” in Servolution: I grab a big box of sandwiches and head to Broad and Snyder.
I’ll be honest, Broad and Snyder can be a problem for me; it is literally around the corner from my house, which means I walk there almost daily, seeing poverty and pain each time I do. The homeless, the addicted, the mentally ill . . . people with every sort of affliction find their way to this intersection. Sometimes I can’t bear to look. Even if I knew how to help these people, I couldn’t help all of them. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve gotten into the habit of keeping my eyes to the ground and avoiding eye contact, because normally I feel like I have nothing to offer these people.
But that isn’t the case today.
Today I have sandwiches!!!
I begin handing out sandwiches to people who are both grateful and confused—as people often are when given something unexpected and free of charge. I’m having fun, but something is missing. At Servolution events where free items are given out, we usually include a little card that says,
“We hope this small gift brightens your day. It is a simple way to say
GOD LOVES YOU! No strings attached. City Life Philly.”
But I don’t have any of those cards, and saying, “This is a gift from City Life Church” as I hand over a lunch bag feels inadequate, so it occurs to me that I can also ask each person if I can pray for them. I honestly don’t think anyone will say yes, but to my amazement, most of them do!
(Imagine that . . . people on the streets of Philly wanting prayer. Who knew?)
So I pass out sandwiches and I pray: for a mother who has lost contact with all six of her children; for a grandmother raising grandchildren because their parents are incarcerated; for a studious-looking teenager who doesn’t want a sandwich, but does want prayer because the stress of the end of the school semester is more than he can handle; and for a mother with an infant—that they’ll be able find a safe place to live and never have to go back to the shelter . . .
I’m almost out of sandwiches when I see one more person.
She’s in her late twenties or early thirties, crouched on the top step of the subway stairs. She is skinny; her wavy brown hair is dirty and uncombed; her clothes and hands are grimy; her teeth are in disrepair. I seem to settle on her face last—and it surprises me, because it is lovely and sweet, with deep brown, sorrow-filled eyes.
I look at her and my heart breaks. More accurately, the mother’s heart inside me breaks. I have daughters close to this girl’s age; for a brief second I see my daughters’ faces—first one, then the other—attached to the body of this tragic figure, and it shakes me.
I look down at her and ask if she’d like a sandwich. She softly says, “Yes.”
I slowly lower myself to a step near her (my creaky knees protesting) and ask her name. Then I ask if I can pray for her: I hear another soft, “Yes.”
I ask her what’s going on in her life—how I can pray for her. Those sad, brown eyes look right into mine and without hesitation, she simply says, “Addiction.”
I lift her name to my Father (our Father!), praying that she’ll be set free from addiction. I pray that she’ll get the help she needs. I pray that she’ll (somehow!) know how much God loves her.
As I finish praying, I notice a pair of crutches on the step behind me. I ask if they are hers. She says, yes, that she needs foot surgery but when she goes to the hospital they only deal with her foot—not, as she puts it, “the other thing” (I know she means the addiction). Then she leaves the hospital when she begins to “get sick” (experience withdrawal), with her foot problem still unresolved.
We speak for a few more minutes, and I stand to go. She asks a man standing nearby if she can have the remains of his cigarette when he’s finished with it. “Not before you’re finished,” she says, “just before you throw it on the ground?” He kindly agrees.
There is nothing else I can do for her—not right now, anyway. She asks if she can have another sandwich for later. (Is she kidding? I’d give her a hundred sandwiches if it could make her life better!) I hand her another lunch bag and sadly say goodbye.
The picture of this precious human being sitting on the subway steps stays with me—the image of that sweet face, the crutches, the second-hand cigarette butt.
The next day, in the middle of going about my day, I find myself weeping . . . for her.
And a line of a worship song begins looping in my head, “Break my heart for what breaks yours . . .”*
Over and over it repeats.
“Jesus,” I say, “I don’t remember asking for this . . . for my heart to be broken for what breaks yours. I mean, yes, I’ve sung that song, but I was just singing; I wasn’t really asking!”
But here it is anyway; the image and memory of this girl is with me;
I don’t yet know what to do with it, but I just can’t look away.
*Excerpt from the song, Hosanna by Hillsong United
Katie Lerro is a happily proclaimed “Late Bloomer”—only finding her passion for writing upon hitting her middle years. She lives in South Philly with her husband, Bill, where she enjoys gardening in their tiny concrete yard, taking long walks around the city, and spending time with daughters Alexis and Alison.