At 9:30 a.m., the church door opens. A young woman, a girl really, slips in quietly. She asks quickly, “Can I use the washroom?” My reply is to the already closed bathroom door.
Two hours later, I decide to investigate. The visitor has not reappeared. I knock, asking if she is okay. A mumbled voice replies. I ask her to open the door. I hear her gathering herself up from the floor, then the door is opened.
A young woman, dressed in tight jeans and a short jacket, dark circles under her eyes, is shaking. A wave of alcohol fumes roll out of the washroom.
It feels uncomfortable. I am a large man. “Are you hungry?” She is. “Do you want to go with me to Tim Hortons for a sandwich and coffee?” With her agreement to step outside, my confidence in managing the situation grows a little.
The young woman, “Jill,” tells her story of leaving an abusive partner, of needing alcohol to find the resolve to escape after a particularly violent episode the night before. She wants to be taken out of town and dropped off where she might hitch a ride to Saskatoon. Family and support lie there. I suggest that we buy some lunch and head back to the church to call Mobile Crisis. She’s a little unsure but she agrees.
Mobile Crisis talks to Jill over the phone. They will send a counsellor when they can. I sense a bit of trust growing between us.
As Jill eats, some vitality appears. She tells me about her long-term violent relationship, berating herself for staying so long. She tells stories about herself, her youth, her parents. A sense of humour appears. The questions tumble out. “What kind of a church is this? What’s a Mennonite? Are you a priest? Are you married?” And then, more guarded, body tensing, “Do you ever hit your wife?”
We agree that I will put her on the bus for Saskatoon. At the depot, she is fun, engaging, remarkably articulate. Her eyes never stop roaming, looking at faces, her body is coiled tightly. But I am offered remarkable trust. Spiritual questions keep coming, and sometimes Jill catches her breath, and then mutters, “Yeah, that makes sense.”
I encourage her that this day can be a turning point. She has worth and today she can make decisions that might begin to uncover that worth. It seems like a new concept to her, but I see a hint of hope in her eyes.
Jill offers her hand. Her eyes meet mine. Yes, there is a spark of connection.
I return to the church and open my Advent resource. The first words I see—the only words—are “God’s unstoppable purpose surprises.”
I am surprised. I read the suggested Isaiah passage. One verse comes alive: “For you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down and the mountains trembled before you.”
I think of the Christmas carol, “Away in a Manger.” I think of the bizarre image of God becoming human in the form of an infant, born in a barn. Although we try to romanticize that scene with images of sweet-smelling hay and gentling lowing livestock, barns really aren’t that charming. I’ve forked enough manure to get me past the need for that birth scene to be nice and inoffensive.
A barn is a shocking and a stinking place to discover the Christ. Kind of like . . . a washroom smelling of stale beer.
Ed Olfert (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a pastor and a lot of other things, searching for awe.