During this week when we are reminded to give thanks, I thank God for my weak bladder.
You see, if I didn’t have a weak bladder combined with a neuromuscular disorder preventing me to drive, I might never have spent so much time in Philadelphia’s public restrooms; and if I didn’t have to use the train so much, I might never have met the women and men who make up the community of The Welcome Church. So, when we go around the table on Thursday giving thanks, I am going to give thanks for my weak bladder.
Suburban Station in downtown Philadelphia offers two options for restrooms: one is right in the station. This is the bathroom where I began to meet the women who had no other place to change their clothes, wash their hair, and “spot” wash their bodies. Though the City Year workers do their best to maintain the rest room, they have an almost impossible task with broken hand dryers, doors that need repair, and never enough supplies. The other option is to walk through the Station to the Comcast Center. Here the restrooms are modern and clean; they are well maintained and well-staffed. They are also not welcoming to the women who sleep in the train station, and the women know it.
I use the one right in the station. It is the site of many pastoral visits.
Several weeks ago, I made my stop early in the morning. It was getting cold and the station was filled with many of the folks I would be seeing at our weekly “Tea and Talk” in just a few hours. I entered a stall and saw on the floor of the stall next to me a battered red bag. I could hear soft sounds of sleep from the woman in the stall. I left, but before leaving I took a photo of her suitcase.
The following day I stopped in the bathroom again. This time it was more towards the end of the workday. Once again I could see the same red bag in the same stall, but this time there was also an empty cup, a crumpled food bag, and some clothes. I could see the feet of the woman in the stall.
And then it hit me.
She had been living in this dirty bathroom stall.
I took another photo of her gear because I knew that so many would find this hard to believe.
I went back to the station and this time I went around the time I knew the restroom would be closed for maintenance.
Sure enough, there she was, standing outside the women’s restroom with her red bag and everything else she owned.
We made eye contact and I smiled. For now, this was enough.
That evening at our monthly women’s dinner, I asked our Welcome Church women if they would look out for the woman whose name I did not yet know.
I knew I would be away this week, but I also knew that the women who were sleeping in the station—the women of our Welcome Church community-- would be willing to reach out and invite. I also knew they would respect her space and be gentle.
When I return next week, I will look for her and maybe offer her a gift card to McDonald’s; maybe I will offer to sit with her and get her a drink from Dunkin’ Donuts right there in the station; or maybe I will just say hello.
Sam, an outreach worker who works closely with us will also look out for her; this one time police officer whose son died on the street from a heroin overdose will check into current availabilities of a safe haven, should she choose to want a place.
And before leaving for the Thanksgiving break, I spoke to the woman who maintains the bathroom. She is the same one who had me pray with her because she just left an abusive relationship. Dionne had once been on the street herself.
So, on this week of giving thanks, I am grateful for my weak bladder and for not being able to drive, and all the other parts of my life that are messy and inconvenient.
I give thanks because it is in those messy and inconvenient places that God keep showing up. And sometimes She’s carrying a red suitcase.