charity holds her head

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


  1. I don’t usually use the term “moving” to describe my emotional reactions because, to me, it’s always sounded like “made me internally squishy” or “made me a weepy weed”. But here, I think the double meaning of feeling “moved” by this post is more than appropriate. As recently as some twenty hours ago, a walk to/from the park reminded me of how many people I pass by without a glance, or with no more than a polite or even warm smile. I could do more. Or more specifically, as a Christian, how can I *not* do more? Those last words have done me in. “How can I know what I know and not live a radical life?”
    Reading your story (which sounds so familiar, I might’ve told myself) could make me both squishy and weepy – but I would rather feel convicted. Put on the spot. Even a little panicked. If I can do more, how can I not? So to tie off poetically, I’ll place my new pet-word into the present-progressive:
    Thanks for this post. It’s moving me.

    1. Thank you, Katy. I was a little nervous about posting this because it is so very blatant, truthful, and a little intense ... you've encouraged me a great deal. Sometimes I think I can a little too 'big picture' - if that makes sense - and then things get unpractical - but the main thing is we are aware and trying!

  2. Certainly a difficult question that we've probably all asked ourselves a few times. This brings to mind the winter I wanted to drive around the city of Detroit and pass out my mother's old, spare blankets to the homeless people. It was soooo cold! My cousin, Erik, was home from the Air Force and he had a large van. I thought we could just pull up to people and I could hand the blankets out to them through the side-door of his van. He and my mother would have nothing to do with the idea. That still bothers me a little and I wonder why they were so averse to the notion. Just last week I saw a couple hitchhiking and wondered if I should help them, then a thousand and one scenes from various horror movies flashed through my mind and I realized I lost courage. Maybe that's what happened in my mother and cousin's minds when they invisioned me handing out the blankets. I don't know. I was young and idealistic at the time. I'm still idealistic but also more realistic these days. Having a child in your care will do that to a person. ;)

    I think that God did bless that woman. He used you as an instrument to do so. Who knows, the money you gave her may have helped her make a permanent change. One things leads to another, and so on... I'm sorry that I don't have a better answer. "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are." ~ Theodore Roosevelt ~ I think that is the best that any of us can do. And, certainly, protecting your child is number one. You may not have been able to bring her home but teaching Isaac to be compassionate and give what he can is also a beautiful thing. Just think what the world could become if everyone set that example in front of their children.

    1. I would've totally helped you hand blankets through car windows... and then cried all the way home thinking they'd still freeze to death.

      I hope someday I can have a room, maybe at the back of the coffeehouse, where I can keep bunkbeds and have a weekly soup kitchen - all for homeless or displaced people, anyone who needs it.

      You can come hand out blankets there, and I will give you free coffee after. ;)

  3. i've thought this so many times, in so many ways. i've struggled with it, lost sleep over it. i have no idea what the answer is. but i just wanted to thank you for your honesty and transparency.

    "How can I know what I know and not live a radical life?" i hope that will stay with me and that i can somehow, in a small way, live it out the way i am supposed to.

  4. Lauren, your soul is beautiful.


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