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I welcomed people to the bus in East Harlem, asking their names and introducing myself to them before they were handed their soup and hot chocolate. Of all the locations I’ve visited with the Relief Bus, Harlem is my favorite and I think I love it so much because it seems like the most unlikely of places to receive such kindness. I don’t know what you think of when you think of Harlem, but I’m going to guess that it’s probably not going to make your Christmas destination top ten list anytime soon.
Having worked in hospitality, I feel right at home extending my hand to new friends (part of learning to overcome my introverted nature), asking their name, and where they come from. Over the course of several hours I met people from all over the world: Guinea, Poland, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Zambia, Russia, and Iran. With only a few exceptions, everyone was quick to smile and engage in conversation.
After about an hour of chatting with the guests coming through, an older gentleman, I would guess in his mid-seventies, approached me with a look of hopeless desperation. His nose was running from the bitter cold, he was painfully frail, and as he wrung his shaking hands, I could tell he suffered from Parkinson’s disease. He was wearing an ID tag around his neck, with the name “Paul” written in bold, blue letters. I introduced myself and took his cold, quivering hand in mine. “Let’s get you some hot chocolate,” I said, and led him through the rest of the line.
That was the end of that brief encounter and I didn’t think much of it until several hours later. Another volunteer, Helen, gregarious and bold, had begun to sing gospel songs on the sidewalk, getting some strange sideways glances from passers-by as she belted them out. I have to admit, I sort of shook my head at her myself, as singing on a public street in the heart of Harlem (or anywhere, really) is not something I would ever do. But she was really going for it, and I had to admire her commitment.
I had moved inside the bus, helping ladle soup into cups, and as I glanced out, I noticed that Paul, who had been hanging around, had joined into Helen’s gospel melody.
In the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus, we have the victory! In the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus, Satan will have to flee! Tell me who will stand before us, when we call on that great name! Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus, we have the victory!
And that chorus continued for the next half hour, if not considerably longer. Over and over and over again, Paul sang about the power that is in Jesus’ name. As I mentioned before, Paul had been shaking noticeably from his Parkinson’s, but it seemed that as he was singing, the shaking subsided.
As two o’clock rolled around and we were packing everything up, Paul’s song echoed from the overpass above: In the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus, we have the victory! The volunteers gathered together, as is the usual custom before we head out, and one of the Relief Bus staff tried to get Paul to stop singing, at least long enough for us to pray. But he kept on: In the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus, Satan will have to flee! Another staff person shrugged and said, “You’ll just have to pray louder than he’s singing…”
So we did. With Paul’s resounding melody as the backdrop, we prayed over Harlem, New York City, the homeless, the hopeless, the broken, and the desperate.
We all loaded on to the bus, and as we sat in debrief an hour or so later back in New Jersey, we all agreed that Paul was probably still out on that street, singing his song about the victory that is in Jesus’ name.
Mario rode up into the line of the Relief Bus on his motorized scooter, bundled in a black puffy jacket and a fur cap. I introduced myself and he gave me the biggest toothless smile I have ever seen and responded in a thick New York accent, “I’m Mario!”
Mario rolled on forward, got his soup, and then parked next to the chain link fence beside the bus. I glanced up at him a few minutes later, and he was wagging his finger at me, beckoning me to him. “Come here!” he called. “I wanna talk to you.” I handed my greeting responsibilities off to someone else and jogged over to where he was waiting. We proceeded to spend the next fifteen minutes laughing and swapping stories. “Everyone knows me around here,” he said, “I’ve been around this area for a long time.” He told me about his education, his family, and his love for classical guitar. “If only you could hear me play my guitar, you would fall in love with me on the spot.”
I asked Mario if it would be alright if I took his picture. His eyes danced and he said, “Of course!” I grabbed my camera and brought it back to the street where he had turned his scooter to give me the best light. “I can’t smile for your picture because I don’t have my teeth.” I laughed, “But your smile is one of the best I’ve ever seen!” He indulged, if only for a moment, and I was able to snap a shot, doing my best to capture the joy he radiated.
We’ll never know a person’s story unless we ask. You might be surprised with what greets you if you’re willing to invite a person to share and, who knows, maybe you’ll find a classical guitarist out there to fall in love with.
I sat in the warmth of the Relief Bus, parked in the Bronx, listening to the pounding rain and willing myself to be warm. Josiah, a Relief Bus staff member, was inside chatting with me, and as we talked, he caught a glimpse of a woman waiting outside in a wheelchair. “Oh, that’s Alice! She’s been coming to the Bus forever. We’ll have to get her lifted in here.”
With some help, they were able to get her up the steps and into the vinyl seat across from me. Josiah had encouraged me to ask for her story, so I did and she quickly obliged. She was soft spoken and I had to strain to hear her over the rain on the metal roof above us. She was bundled in a sweatshirt and jacket, with the hood up to keep her warm, wearing sunglasses, despite the darkness from the storm outside.
Alice smiled and started right into the narrative of her life. She wasn’t always in such a dire situation, although life has never quite been easy. With a bachelor’s degree in communication and elementary education, not only did she work as a kindergarten and special education teacher, but she was also employed with the Board of Education. She was married for twenty-seven years before her husband, who had been living a duplicitous life of adultery and addiction, finally left. “He was verbally abusive. It’s been seven years, but I still love him,” she told me, while looking down and shaking her head in sadness.
“I’m blind, you know, because of the medication I had to take for my lupus. I didn’t know the medication could do that, but a year ago, I lost my sight. I have scoliosis and had to have three surgeries in less than a year. I’m in so much pain…”
As she told me her story, she had to pause more than a few times to collect herself. “It’s hard to talk about, you know?” A hopeful consistency in her life, however, has been New York City Relief. “After my husband left, I was feeling so lonely since it was right around the holidays. The Relief Bus staff came all the way to New York to pick me up and bring me to New Jersey to join them for Christmas dinner.” She had tears in her eyes but flashed me a brief smile, “God let me be able to go…because they are my friends!”
When I asked if it would be alright if I took her picture, she said, “Oh no, you can’t…I’m so ugly…” It’s amazing the lies, if we hear them long enough, we’ll begin to believe. I assured her, “No, Alice, you’re beautiful!” I took the opportunity to pray for her, her small hands gripping mine. I honestly don’t understand the reasons why God allows such suffering, but I believe that no pain goes unnoticed or unredeemed.
If there was ever any doubt that New York City Relief is touching lives (and there never was) these stories were more than enough to convince me. This is about as real as it gets. It’s gritty. It’s unglamorous. It seems almost hopeless.
But there is hope.
The more time I spend traveling, the more hope I see – passionate people engaged in the fight, loving the broken in the ways they desperately need to be loved, being faithful not only in the big things, but in the seemingly inconsequential things as well.
Mario, Paul, and Alice, along with New York City Relief, are only snapshots in an ever unfolding and beautiful story.
About the Author: Sarah is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She has her undergraduate degree in Business Communication from Azusa Pacific University in Southern California and is currently working on her Masters degree in Organizational Leadership. Sarah recently finished a two and a half year assignment working for an anti-trafficking NGO in Kathmandu, Nepal, where she had the opportunity to mentor and lead college students in ministry abroad. She is mildly obsessed with Jeopardy, coffee, running, and the Atlanta Falcons.