Jakiyah is eight years old, and fat. Her fatness contributes to the crushing quality of her affection. Can’t blame it all on the chub, though—this girl hugs with a vengeance. I am seated Indian-style under the jungle gym and she is sitting on my right knee, or shall we say, her substantial eight-year-old bum is pressing down on the inside of my right knee, bending it over my left foot. This hurts. I cannot move. We are nose to nose as she plays with my hair. She’s got a constellation of corn-nut salt spanning her ample cheeks, even dusting her eyebrows. Cute. I’m in pain.
I have two choices: a) follow my usual pedophobic instincts and flee or b) consider this the fulfillment of my hanging-out-with-children requirement.
It’s early August, and I’m in Philadelphia with a church youth group. Our purpose: general do-goodery. Our tasks: conduct Vacation Bible School for some local kids, feed the homeless, clean up a few parks, do some work on the Inner City Missions office on Kensington. I’d be happy to stick to the tasks that do not involve overmuch social interaction, but I am playing with Jakiyah because now is the designated time to play with Jakiyah.
Coming here is supposed to be an unselfish act of Christian love, I remind myself as Jakiyah jounces up and down. I don’t do enough unselfish acts of Christian love. One of the youth group leaders had approached me in early June, saying that some high school and college kids were going for short-term missions, could I go with them and lead some group devotions and be a sort of junior leader for the girls? I didn’t see why not, but, true to her role as a youth group leader, she encouraged me to pray about it. I did my version of “pray about it,” which really is just stalling for a few weeks, and occasionally imagining myself in the supposed situation and then feeling around for any overwhelming sense of unease or repulsion. If the unease and repulsion don’t show, then I go.
Which brings me here, in the inner city of Philadelphia, in the midst of a crowd of chatty, eager teenagers with their bandannas and clever message t-shirts and child-charming skills. I watch in envy and awe as they scatter and conquer. How do they do it?
Every day, Jakiyah finds a new lap to squash. In the middle of the week, she attaches herself to a college-age kid from our group named Jacob. She hangs onto him like he’s the tree from the Lion King—remember that scene where Simba gets caught in a rush of wildebeests and he’s stranded on a rickety old skeleton of a tree with the stampede thundering by like a violent river of hooves? Jakiyah is Simba, Jacob is the tree. She won’t let him go. This perturbs me. What if all the other kids see this? What happens if they all decide that they’re through with Veggie Tales videos and puppet shows, and they’d rather hang onto us like sweaty, popsicle-sticky ball-and-chains? I’ll tell you what would happen: An uprising! Chaos! Disturbance of the natural order!
But Jacob keeps holding her. Through the video, through the puppet show, through our raggedy attempts to get the kids to sing Jesus songs. He gets tired of carrying her so he lies down on the playground asphalt with Jakiyah stretched out on his belly like a baby otter. I want to go over there and grab her, stand her up and make her play Red Light Green Light with the other kids. But her eyes are squinched shut with a definitely-not-asleep determination. They’re not going anywhere.
In a similar vein, when we are dropped off in Logan Square to provide sandwiches and conversations for the homeless, I half expect a shame-faced, sullen resistance from the teenagers. This is just too hard. But then I look up, and there they go. Scattering and conquering again. Am I a leader of this group? I guess I’d better go, too.
I have never spoken to a homeless person before. If I were them, I muse, I’d just take the sandwich and leave. Go away, I’d say. Thank you, and go away. I scan the park, trying to locate someone who looks like they might talk to me. How about that guy? He looks fairly nice. Is he looking over here? Maybe he will say something, so I don’t have to make the first move. He’s reaching into his pocket—oh, God, what if it’s a knife? This is it. He’s gonna slice me like an orange. They’ll rush me to the ER but it’ll be too late, the heart monitor will go Bip! Bip! Beeeeeeeeeeeeeep, and everyone will sob. How tragic. All she wanted was to do some good in this world. It’ll be a closed-casket funeral, for sure. These poor churchy teenagers will have nightmares for years. I wonder if it’ll hurt. I don’t want to die, Lord, not yet—oh, it’s just a napkin, he’s blowing his nose.
While I’m thinking this, a van pulls up and the doors slide open, expelling some guys from another do-gooder group. They have sandwiches, too, and they have soup in thick plastic coolers and a tray of frosted brownies. Our tuna salad sandwiches immediately begin to wilt and get squishier in their Ziploc bags. Poor tuna sandwiches. They thought they were going to be the life of this party, until a stretch Escalade pulled up and deposited a dozen hot blondes in heels and short skirts, carrying trays of brownies. With frosting. I will never find a homeless person to talk to me.
I look around desperately. I grab Maggie, one of the youth group girls, because I do not want to be alone. We walk a lap or two around the park, walk down the line of people waiting for their three-course meal. We secretly browse them like library books on a shelf. We venture towards to big fountain. We exchange possible conversation starters.
“‘I see that you are about to enjoy a delicious meal,’” Maggie says to the darkening sky. “‘My mother cooked it.’” She turns to me and explains, “See, it works because they have no way of knowing that it’s not true.” I nod encouragingly. Maggie continues: “Okay, how about this: ‘I see that you’re wearing blue…’”
“‘Blue is also my favorite color,’” I add. It isn’t, but they won’t know that, either.
“‘I find it to be the most versatile of colors. Don’t you agree?’” We consider this for a moment, but now we are back at the queue, and I am praying that somebody will say something to us first so that we don’t actually have to use any of our opening lines. I’m waiting for something, anything, a glance, a chuckle, some acknowledgment of our presence, and then I will pounce and pursue (conversationally, not literally) the hapless victim until he or she is left, spent and panting, like a deer during hunting season.
That’s not exactly how it happens. I don’t remember precisely how it happens. Anyway, skip ahead a few minutes, and Maggie is speaking to a man named Dennis, and Allan does not seem to mind talking to me, so I follow him through the line and eventually sit down with him by a low wall.
We sit and talk for a while. More accurately, I sit and listen as Allan speaks. Only when he is chewing do I add some words—mostly filler words, to show that I am listening. Words like, “I can’t even imagine what that must have been like.” “What did you do next?” He tells me that, years ago, he severely beat his neighbor with a pipe because he had hit Allan’s daughter. Allan spent time in prison for that one. He also relates to me the occasion when he shot someone in the back (hit his spinal cord, crippled for life). No jail for that one; it was clearly in defense of Allan’s aunt, who was being attacked by the guy with a baseball bat. And then about the time Allan found his wife in bed with his best friend. How he lost everything at once. This stuff happens in real life??
“I used to have a job,” he says intensely. “I had a house, and a car, and a family. But I’m not complaining.” He continues, “I got food to eat and I have my health. Every day I have to be thankful.”
Is it possible, I wonder from safe inside my own life, for one person to both suffer and inflict suffering to this extent? Isn’t there a cap? Quota satisfied?
Partway through his monologue, he pauses and regards me. “I’ve never met anybody like you,” he said to me. To me. “You just sit there and listen and listen to me talk.” I am speechless. Does he know that this is not Everyday Me, but only Missions Trip/Good Role Model Me, the one who comes out only occasionally? He says, “Lots of people come here and hand out food. But nobody will sit here for this long.” He looks out over the park. Night has fallen, almost completely. Small groups of people are standing in the light puddles beneath the lamp posts. I still don’t know what to say.
So I ask, “What do you do all day?”
“Walk. I walk and I pray. Ain’t nobody to talk to except yourself and God. I try to remember some things. I try to forget some things.”
As liberal and enlightened as I am, a fine balanced product of Christian compassion and highbrow liberal education, modern democratic philosophy, I still can’t relate. Jakiyah is a chunky little ebonics-drawling black girl, Allan is an ex-convict homeless guy missing half of his teeth. I hug Jakiyah because she hugs me first, and because I’m supposed to. I sit on the grass and listen to Allan talk because I have to, everyone else is doing it, this is what we signed up for. But let’s say I wasn’t on a church missions trip, let’s just say that it’s any other weekday and I am in NYC, on my way to this or that thing, riding the subway and pounding the gum-dotted pavement. Let’s say I am making my way down a sidewalk, earphones in, and then I pass a woman sitting on a garbage bag, her shoulders wrapped in a man’s coat, a take-out container at her feet. You can bet your pew-familiar ass that I will not stop, will not talk to her, will not make eye contact. Why not? Because if she sees my eyes, she’ll remember me and chase me down every time I come by this way, call out to me in an evil witch/hag sort of manner, which would be a nuisance far beyond the call of Christian duty. You can bet your well-intentioned bourgeois butt that I will continue walking, as if she were nothing more than a prop, part of the scenery, like a telephone pole or a sidewalk pigeon.
“What these people, the children and the homeless, need most is somebody to talk to,” says Pastor Frank, the head of Inner City Missions in Philadelphia. “Yes, we provide them food, and a place to go, but lots of groups will do that. We give them our time. We give them love.” This shames me, like I’m being made a big deal of for writing a charity check that is going to bounce.
I hug Jakiyah back because she hugs me first. This is not a matter of preference, or even affection. The same with Allan. This is not the kind of love that I’m familiar with. I feel very little. All I have are my two hands, my mind, my functional self, and the will/determination/desperation to not chicken out. If I hadn’t come, somebody else probably would have held Jakiyah and talked to Allan—probably somebody from this very group. They may have done a better job at it, too. But here I am, and it was me.
God, will you accept that? It’s all I have.