While reflecting on my time serving an inner city church, I remembered one day in particular when I had to literally step over a homeless young African-American woman to get into the doors of the church where I served as pastor. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life — painful knowing she was without a home of her own and painful knowing that our faces were similar.
There she was, snuggled on the steps to the main entrance of the church, wrapped up in her blanket. It was around 4 p.m. on a Wednesday. She probably thought there was nothing happening on a Wednesday at a historic downtown church, and therefore she would go unnoticed.
Or maybe she didn’t give it much thought, as she just needed someplace to settle for the evening, to find rest and solace. Certainly the steps of a church, an entrance to the house of God, would suffice.
I tried to get her name as I turned the key in the lock. She was not open to answering questions, she told me.
“Lots of people ask me lots of questions, but it doesn’t change anything,” she said.
I responded, “You know, I can understand that. My name is Pastor Monica, if you ever need to come looking for me.”
I went on to tell her that she would not be able to stay in that spot because a few people (my appointments for that day) would be coming to this entrance in a few minutes.
I opened the door and went into the church.
A few minutes later the doorbell rang, and one of the people who shared space in the church answered. It was the homeless woman asking to use the restroom. She came in, used the restroom and, on her way out, said, “Thank you.”
In a strange way, I felt honored she still thought enough of the church to ask to come inside the doors. Her presence reminded me of the Scripture in Hebrews 13:2: “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”
She didn’t ask for anything. She seemed content with her blanket and her cart filled with all her belongings.
I looked for her after I’d finished my appointments for the day, but she was gone. Moved on to the next place that would offer her the solace she sought.
Homelessness and poverty. We’re surrounded by its images, even in State College, in the faces of the people we notice struggling and enduring on the streets of our city, in homeless shelters or daytime holding spaces like Hearts for the Homeless.
Included are people who make monthly visits to the State College Food Bank, who seek assistance from Interfaith Human Services or Centre County Mental Health/Intellectual Disabilities/Early Intervention-Drug & Alcohol Program.
Can these faces that come to us seeking help serve as religious icons? That is, are they a means of looking into and through to the very eyes and heart of our God?
Perhaps, indeed, they serve as angels and icons in our midst.
Monica Dawkins-Smith is the pastor at Faith United Church of Christ, State College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.