On a visit to take my daughter back to school this past Saturday, I went to a Caribou coffee shop in my old neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota to write and, yes, I'll admit, to reminisce a little about the good old days of my youth in the area. I sat at a table that had an annoying wobbly leg for 10 minutes until a woman left and made a more desirable seat available. I moved to that spot, which happened to be a table away from an African American woman.
I minded my own business for an hour as I typed away away on my laptop. The woman seemed restless, getting up and down to go to the bathroom, outside for a smoke, over to the counter to buy a pastry etc. She had a small bag with her and was dressed okay, but because of her restlessness nature and yet no apparent urgency to be anywhere, I pegged her as probably homeless.
She finally asked me what I did for a living - being curious about my laptop and my writing. I told her I was in GIS and mapping, but that I was also an author and liked to write. It led us to a 30 minute discussion about everything from my church, CollectiveMKE, to her story of jumping a boxcar to Minnesota from Montana. We talked about her past, my past, what makes us happy, my kids, our educational backgrounds, and more.
When I asked her where she lived, she said "the trees, the sky, the water." It turns out she was a foster kid and her young life was spent moving from home to home. She'd recently lost her job and was on a list to get into a shelter in St. Paul somewhere, but really didn’t have a place to stay just yet. She told me her real name, but said she preferred to go by "Gypsy." She was 23 years old, incredibly well spoken, intelligent and approachable, all of which was part of the reason I had trouble reconciling her homelessness.
She had also been part of a mega-church at one time. When I asked her what her current faith was like she said she has developed her own sort of spirituality – which I can totally understand.
And I will admit that during the entire discussion, part of me also was fighting with the decision to engage or shut the conversation down, mostly because of preconceived notions about homelessness, talking to strangers, scammers, etc.
But instead, I chose to be present and listen.
I am glad I did because her story was beautiful and tragic and rich. She was broken - but not permanently, I felt, and I told her as much. As she got up to leave, I told her I wanted to give her something. I handed her a twenty dollar bill. She said I did not need to do that and reassured me that was not what our whole exchange was about, nor why she’d started the conversation with me. I insisted because I felt I needed to do something. She thanked me, we hugged and we both left.
When I got into my van to go home, within two minutes the song that came on the radio was Gypsy, by Fleetwood Mac. And I thought to myself, Seriously, God? He's got a great sense of humor. I can't make this stuff up.
On my drive home, I thought about our conversation and I kept returning to everything that I’ve learned at CollectiveMKE about being together and present for one another. About tables and listening and connection and our collective humanity.
Even our website alludes to this consciousness:
“IT'S TIME FOR A BETTER STORY. The kind of story that has a place for everyone, where every voice is heard, and where we discover new ways to live in deep connection and peace with each other. Together really is better.”
And, while I know it's a little lame to use rock lyrics as inspiration, I couldn't help but look up the lyrics to Fleetwood Mac's Gypsy. One stanza jumped out at me because it seemed so relevant to my encounter.
"To the gypsy
Her face says freedom
With a little fear
I have no fear
I have only love
And if I was a child
And the child was enough
Enough for me to love
Enough to love..."
-Lyrics from Gypsy, by Fleetwood Mac
At CollectiveMKE we don't focus on judgement, and we talk a lot about love, about loving like Christ loved. This encounter was all about all of these statements.
Now, I don't tell this story because I want to be lauded as a good guy, or to puff myself up. It was simply a really cool and certainly spiritual experience that may not have happened if I had not switched chairs. It definitely would not have happened if I had not engaged and been present for this person, this human, this sister of mine. And both of our lives would have been less rich as a result.