It’s a Wednesday, homeless outreach day. Once a week, the missionaries at A Simple House pair off to go into the woods and see who we can meet. The goal is pretty simple: to bring love to neglected places and to help where we can. For the five of us who live and work here in Kansas City, this is our job—to love the poor and outcast as Christ did. Not much of a business model, but it’s a pretty good gig.
Gabe and I team up. I brew coffee. He packs snacks. We get in the car and pray: he for me, I for him, Amen. Gabe starts the car. He always drives—doesn’t trust my driving, which is probably fair. We go to West Bottoms where Ricky and Andrea live, somewhere in the woods, right beneath the cow statue. We haven’t seen them in weeks. A visit’s past due.
We put on big crucifixes before leaving the car. I grab the coffee and the snacks and pray some more. I pray leaving the car, entering the woods, and navigating the trails. Jesus did tell us to pray always. But these prayers are silent, right from my heart to Him.
There is necessary risk involved in being an inner-city missionary. The motto of A Simple House says, “we are to wonderfully and radically fall upon the cross of Christ for grace and support.” This isn’t lip service. Whenever I enter the woods, I don’t know who or what I’ll encounter. I don’t know if I’ll be up to the task, or what that task will be. But still, I feel called to go, so I pray and hope for the best.
We arrive at Ricky’s camp. It’s barricaded by old box springs. A thick blanket stands in for a door. We can’t see inside. “Anyone home?” I yell. We hear voices. “Come on in,” one says. Gabe pushes the blanket aside.
Inside are two men. They sit on lawn chairs. Underneath them is a red, tasseled rug and underneath that, a strip of plastic turf. Ricky’s got quite the setup. He’s been in these woods for over a decade. Gabe and I approach the men. One man doesn’t talk. The other talks a lot—murmurs, really. I’ve never seen them before. They must be new here, or visiting. Kansas City’s homeless population is transient. There’s little difference between the visitors and residents of a camp. Both could be gone in a matter of days.
“How are you?” I ask them. The murmuring man answers.
“I’m drowning,” he says. His voice slurs. Words dip in and out. He leans in his chair—first right, then left, then forward. “Can you see the water?” He gestures toward his legs. His pants are sagging, almost off. I try not to look.
“I’m a musician,” he says.
I take the bait. “What do you play?”
“I rap.” Unprompted, he begins free-styling. His lips move fast. His voice is low. I don’t understand much, just catch a word here, there. Gabe and I listen. We bob. We smile. The other man also smiles. He also bobs. The rapping continues. And continues. Nearly ten minutes pass.
“Well man,” Gabe says. The man doesn’t pause. “Thanks for sharing.” We back away. He’s still rapping. We enter Ricky’s tent. He’s still rapping.
Ricky’s tent is large. It sits on a raised platform and must sleep nearly eight. There’s a generator outside that powers the radio and a propane stove inside for cooking and heat. Another rug, likely thrifted from a dumpster, marks the front entrance way. There’s even a bookshelf, a bit dilapidated, but useful for displaying bottles and hubcaps and other found objects. The tent has two sections. Ricky is in the back one, in bed (“bed” being a sodden queen-sized mattress, also likely found in a dumpster, but still, larger than my mattress). He’s groggy, just waking up. It’s almost noon. Gabe pours him some coffee.
“You want sugar?” he asks.
Ricky nods. I pour. “More. More. More. Thaaaaaat’s…good.” I stop. I hand Ricky the cup. He takes a long sip and sighs. “That’s good stuff.”
Andrea appears from the covers. “Can I have some?” Gabe pours another cup. She takes it black.
We move into the front section of the tent. Ricky offers me a seat on an upended crate, but I decide to stand. I’m still aware of the men outside. Gabe sits and settles in. We talk for a while, just catching up. They’ve been good. We’ve been good. Some critters have been around the tent. Stealing their stuff, those bandits. Gabe and I try to empathize. We can’t. There’s a pause and I realize it’s quiet. I look behind me.
The man has stopped rapping. He’s leaning over. He fumbles around on the ground, which is covered with trash. He pulls out a pipe and lights it. The pipe is glass. Its contents are cloudy. My heart accelerates. I remember what Clark, our director, tells us before homeless ministry. Trust your instincts. Leave if you feel unsafe.
Do I feel unsafe? I wrestle with this question. I imagine worst case scenarios. Kansas City headlines: Young Female Missionary Killed in Woods by Meth Addict. The mission has to shut down. I become a cautionary tale. People wonder why I didn’t leave, what I was doing there in the first place. That’s one scenario. But on the other hand, there’s me at the Gates of Heaven, and Jesus dividing the goats from the sheep. Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these…
In Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer, the fictional Central American country of Boca Grande is under siege by revolutionary guerrilleros. As people are being executed, the wealthy norteamericanos are advised to get out. The main character, Charlotte, insists on staying in vain hope of reuniting with her daughter. “You don’t get any real points for staying here, Charlotte,” her husband tells her before he boards a plane. “I can’t seem to tell what you do get the real points for,” Charlotte says, “So I guess I’ll stick around here awhile.” At the end of the novel, Charlotte is captured and killed by the rebels. She never reunites with her daughter.
My palms are starting to sweat. My senses are heightened. I know this feeling of adrenaline rushing, of my body preparing for fight or flight. I do feel unsafe. But is that reason enough to leave? Do I get any real points for staying here? What do I get real points for?
I try catching Gabe’s eye. He’s talking to Ricky, so I wait for a lag in the conversation. My neck tingles. I look behind me. The man is standing now. I angle myself towards him. He’s taken up muttering again and is fishing in his pockets.
I trust my instincts.
I step on Gabe’s toe, nudge him a little. He doesn’t notice. How does he not notice? Ricky is still talking—something about raccoons. He’s mid-sentence. I cough. “Well Ricky,” I say. “Nice seeing ya. We gotta head out.” Gabe looks at me. I look at him, then behind me. He gets it.
We leave the tent and walk past the men. The one still sits, silent. The other still stands. I give a curt wave. He trips on his feet. Drowning.
I look behind my back—keep looking until we’re in the clear, literally. The woods end. We’re out. I stop sweating, stop looking. I breathe. Gabe shakes his head. He’s upset, I can tell.
“Someone’s gotta help them.” He spits. Gabe always spits. “Who else is gonna?”
I nod. I agree. Someone’s gotta. But not me.
Mary-Kate Corry worked for four years as a missionary at A Simple House of Sts. Francis and Alphonsus where she fell in love with God, the poor, and Kansas City. She recently moved to South Bend, IN, where she fell in love with her husband, and now works as a special needs caretaker. Her writings can be found in Notre Dame Magazine.
Photo Credit: “Homeless Encampment” by Neil Hodges, via Flickr.com.