“Can you get me some food?” the woman said, interrupting my friend Krystal and my last few bites as we sat outside, finishing our tacos in the Houston heat. Turning towards her, we saw an extremely thin figure with no teeth and no hair and a hat pulled over most of her small head.
“Can you get me some food? They raped me, yesterday at the courthouse. You’ve got to tell Obama. Some sausage and cheese with tomatoes on a tortilla. They raped me, you’ve got to help me. I want just some sausage with tomatoes on a tortilla and lots of cheese.”
“Would you like a taco?” I asked, addressing what seemed to be her most urgent need first.
“No, my teeth can’t handle it. I want some sausage and cheese and tomatoes in a tortilla. And tell them to put cheese on it,” she responded.
I went to get what sounded very much like a chorizo taco, although the woman refused to call it that, while Krystal invited her to sit down where I had been sitting and chat.
Returning with a glass of ice water for our visitor, I found that Krystal had gotten her much more calm. Her story started to focus away from her need for food and back to her experience at the courthouse and her need for Obama to intervene.
We asked her if she would go to the Houston Women’s Center, but she insisted that the judge would not let her go there.
I don’t know how much of what she was saying was factual, but at the same time I believed her. I believed her because I did not know whether a police man had raped her in the courthouse the day before, but living on the streets the way she did, I could be pretty sure that this woman had been raped, probably many times.
I did not know what I could do for Beloved,* but with Krystal as a compassionate companion in this conversation, I was going to listen.
I knew that I was not going to ignore Beloved, or patronize her, or push her away. I was not going to laugh at her and tell her she needed to get over it. I was not going to ask her if she had forgiven herself yet. I was not going to tell her that I could not afford to hear what she had to say because I needed to protect my own relationship with the police. I was not going to tell her she better keep quiet or she’d make all women look bad. I was – above all – not going to tell her that it was her own fault.
There was not much we could do, but we could listen and we could care.
Her ramblings about the courthouse and the judge were intermixed with another story she started telling as she repeated herself over and over again. A story of a motel. A story of waking up and not knowing what had happened to her. A story of the hotel manager telling her that the police had raped her and left her there.
Something told me that while her story about the courthouse was questionable – although it is within the realm of possibility that everything she said was true – this story about the motel was very likely the true one. Perhaps it was the first one. The root story. The one she may have been telling for decades, with no one believing her. The story that happened back when she had hair on her head and teeth in her mouth and a figure of any kind. When you could tell that she was a woman by more than the fact that she told you she was. This story about the motel may have been the one that started it all, the one that launched her out onto her journey on the streets.
Hearing the word “motel”, it was impossible not to think of my own home here in Houston. A community reclaimed from such a use. Resurrected from dealing death-blows to people’s consciousness, to become instead a place of love and healing.
The story of this building is well known, since the time that Pastor Rudy Rasmus wrote about it in his groundbreaking book, Touch. Here, once upon a time, powerful men from throughout the Houston area would bring a woman for an hour or two. A house of ill-repute. Now it seeks to be a community for artists, promoting love, and healing, and fellowship. Next door to me is a couple from Sierra Leone, taking a sabbatical from their work with Word Made Flesh. Above me is a young couple that commutes around Houston on bikes, and works long into the night on projects in our art studio.
It’s hard to imagine that in this same room where I live – the room that I have filled to the brim with green and red and flowers and light – women, like Beloved, may have stared at colorless walls; may have felt nothing or, worse yet, may have felt something – may have felt fear.
I know what that fear tastes like on the back of your tongue. Bitter and paralyzing. Only when I tasted it for a third time, as I contemplated how to escape the back seat of a careening tuk tuk taxi, was I able to identify the two other times when I had tasted it in my life for what they were. The danger of hate masquerading as love; the danger of violence masquerading as tenderness; the danger of the conqueror circling the prey.
What responsibility do I have to Beloved? I have no more, and no less, than any woman has. The responsibility to listen and the responsibility to care. The responsibility to do something, if there is something that can be done. The responsibility to let her know she is not alone. Above all, the responsibility to be aware of the fact that so many pieces of our over-sexualized culture are complicit accomplices in human trafficking and victimization through normalizing violence, normalizing explicit imagery, and normalizing aggressive behavior as “passion” – and that we become unwitting accomplices ourselves when we promote them.
What could Krystal and I do for Beloved? Not much. We could listen and we could care. We could believe her story, as muddled as it was, for the pieces of truth that we knew lay within it.
“Beloved listen,” I said as she stuffed her lunch into her bag and prepared to make her escape to the safety of an alley, to begin her task of consuming her food without the aid of teeth. “Beloved listen. I am one of the pastors at St. John’s Downtown, do you know where that is? That’s where you can find me.”
“Oh I can’t come there,” she said, “the judge, he’ll make an end of everything if I come there. That will be the end of everything.”
“Okay Beloved, well that is where we are if it ever feels safe enough to come.”
And with that, she was gone.
After finishing our own lunches, Krystal and I began to take a walk, still processing our encounter. Partway through our journey, Beloved intercepted us on the path, rambled for a few minutes, and then dashed back into an alley. We did not know where she was, but she seemed to be keeping track of where we were.
I’ll make it easy for you Beloved – you know where to find us: at St. John’s Downtown.
*Name changed to protect the innocent. Replaced with the name God gives to her.