I was walking home from a backyard birthday party in my neighborhood—the first festive gathering I had attended in person since the covid-19 pandemic restrictions had begun sixteen months earlier.
I had been snapping pictures of beautiful trees and an inspiring front yard with rhubarb, a cloud of dillweed, and a sign with a Wendell Berry poem planted near the sidewalk. I walked under the Metro train viaduct and saw him at the Clark Street intersection.
The man was white with graying hair, wiry, and deeply bowed at the waist. He was pushing a bike and had stopped to catch his breath.
When I caught up with him, I asked if he could use some help pushing his bike. He demurred but then said yes, so I took hold. It took him a little while to release his hold—I think he wanted to make sure it wasn’t too heavy for me. I too am graying. Once he realized I was OK with the weight, he let go. A heavy bag hung from the handlebars, and another was fastened behind the seat.
As we headed north on Clark, he told me that he was heading to his girlfriend’s apartment near the Mexican bakery up ahead. She had been bedridden for eighteen months; I didn’t catch her diagnosis. Her mother had died of covid in October 2020.
He himself had been attacked and robbed on the Red Line months ago. He had undergone surgeries but was left with a wracked body. He thanked me for accompanying him. “My name’s Will,” he said.
“And I’m Ruth,” I replied.
He pointed to a gangway to enter his girlfriend’s building, on the opposite side of Clark. I suggested that we continue to the corner to cross at the light, but he veered into the street midblock. North-south traffic was stopped or slowed by red lights at the moment, so I followed him and waved to drivers who made way for us.
At the narrow gangway opening, he insisted on taking the bike. I followed him to a locked gate that held a row of mailboxes. He unlocked it and I helped steady the bike as he squeezed through, ducking under the mailboxes. He didn’t want me to enter the building with him, even though he’d be hauling the bike up three flights of stairs. So I said goodbye and continued my walk.
* * *
All my life I have struggled to respond ethically to people in need in public places. I have been urged not to give to those who panhandle, as they may be feeding a drug habit. I have been urged to give them a small amount of cash and acknowledge their humanity. Some people advise offering only food as a way to flush out those who want cash for nefarious purposes.
I haven’t figured it out. I advocate for government programs that would provide housing and meet other needs. I give to food programs. But these initiatives have not yet provided everything that’s needed, so I still meet struggling people on the street sometimes.
Given Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 25, I have realized that I must recognize Jesus in prisoners, sick folks, and others who suffer need and oppression. People don’t have to be virtuous and free of drugs to be Jesus to me. And I’m not their savior, just their sister.
Sometimes I give some money and say “God bless you.” Sometimes I have no money and can only smile at them and pray. Occasionally I stop to talk. My city is full of Jesus.
Will was not panhandling; he was pushing his bike along without asking for help. I got to be his sister for a few minutes, marveling at his determination, his willingness to walk bent over, struggling for breath, to reach his sick girlfriend. And then I had to respect his boundaries as he insisted that I go on my way while he somehow pulled his bike up the stairs alone.
* * *
One way that I process my grief at news of catastrophic floods and fires, intensifying effects of climate change, is to walk in my neighborhood as often as possible. I take many pictures of flowers, trees, the lake, the sky. Earth is sick “through our own grievous fault,” as the Book of Common Prayer confession says, so taking walks is a way of fulfilling Jesus’s parable of instruction: “I was sick and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36).
The whole earth is filled with God’s glory (Isaiah 6:3 and many other biblical passages). Given extreme economic inequities, pervasive effects of racism, and an oppressive criminal “justice” system, it is also filled with God’s suffering.
I want to be a friend who stays awake with Jesus in Touhy Park or crossing Clark Street. I want to keep my eyes open to Jesus’s presence in my neighbor’s riotous butterfly garden—cup plant and bee balm pushing toward the sun. And in the labored steps of a man named Will.