A few weeks ago, on the way to catch a train in Nørreport with the boys, I came across a woman in her mid-thirties, begging. I was coming up from the metro and there she was, sitting on the top step, looking directly at me. She wore a long skirt and loose sweater, her head wrapped tightly in a scarf so that only her face was visible, and her fingers - holding out a paper cup as people passed by.
I am certainly not a stranger to this sight, but something about this woman's face made me freeze inside. She was beautiful, soft, sweet-looking; the sort of face that resonates with kindness, with deeply sorrowful eyes. She looked like she was on the verge of something, straddling the line between disbelief that she was there, begging, and resignation.
She has stayed with me since, in my mind's eye; her face, her sadness.
I have always found it difficult to walk past someone begging or sleeping in the street without stopping, even if their displacement is by choice rather than misfortune, and I have nothing to offer. As Margaret Atwood wrote in one of her novels: I am rendered helpless by the helpless. I am at a disadvantage, I know; limited, naive. I have never been without home. Sometimes I think they know these things about me, instinctively; they can see me coming and I can't avoid eye contact.
We went to an ATM, and as we walked past her I could feel her eyes on my back - do you know that feeling? Almost like I'd just stomped out whatever hope she had left. I know I am projecting on her in saying this; perhaps she felt nothing, perhaps the expression in her eyes was all she needed to con me. I considered this, distractedly, but when I returned and handed her the money her face immediately lit up like a small child, incredulous, grateful.
Her gratitude humbled me in a deep way. What I had given her was so insignificant, so small, it felt almost undeserving of her immense thankfulness for it, if that makes sense. I walked away feeling helpless. What more could I have done? Should have done? I am confounded by this question. As a human, I feel compassion towards this woman; as a Christian, I feel responsible for her.
Should I have invited her to my home? Half an hour away by train with a complete stranger, into my studio apartment where my child sleeps? Even if she needed somewhere to go, and she may not have, would she have come with me? Should I have sat next to her and tried to talk to her, on the steps of the metro, despite the fact that I don't think she understood English? What would I have said?
I don't know.
I said 'God bless you' in passing, and I immediately thought of that verse about telling someone to go and be warm and full without offering them the means to do so. Granted, she could buy food with the money I gave her, but this is so small in comparison to the weight of what I know, of what I am entrusted to share: the immense compassion and provision I have been shown, my salvation.
I know when I ask these questions, I am grappling with the bigger picture; that someday, when I meet my Creator, it will dawn on me in an overpowering way that this is the only thing that matters. This woman, her soul, and everyone else. I have an inkling of this now, as if I can't quite grasp it the way I know I should.
I should be blown away by the immense and obvious truth of it.
How can I know what I know and not live a radical life? How do I live a radical life? Where should I start, if not with this woman?
Do you know?
You whose passion never fades, who will never pass away
We see the gifts You bring, how lovely, lovely
Charity holds her head in different ways than I'd imagined it, in laurels of glory
All of the things she says, I'm bound to hang my head ...
- J. Knapp