"It is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance," Julia told our Esther Movement team gently, quoting Romans 2:4. She expounded: "It's not the judgment of God, it's not fear of God or even hell, that will lead people to repentance. At least, not the people of this neighborhood." And Julia would know. She has lived and worked in the infamous Tenderloin for many years, one of toughest neighborhoods in San Francisco. It was not hard to believe her once we canvassed the streets, observing heartbreaking poverty and the dehumanizing effects of chronic homelessness and addictions of all sorts. The need for simple acts of kindness is overwhelming, and Julia truly believes that as we extend a cup of hot cocoa on a cold night, or a gift bag with lip gloss, or a listening ear, or even just a smiling hello, we embody the kindness of our God.
Julia, who serves with Because Justice Matters, guided us throughout our weekend in the Tenderloin. She pushed us to think deeply about the unrelenting challenges the women in this community face: where will they sleep each cold and dangerous night, and from that question springs another more perilous question: what are they willing to do for a bed? And from that comes even harder questions to wrestle with like what constitutes a choice? What does consent really mean? We may have the ability to make a choice, but do we have the capacity? For example, we may know how to swim (ability), but can we swim across San Francisco Bay (capacity)? Of course not. And the reverse can also be true: we may be in all ways determined to move out of one situation and into another (capacity), but there may be insurmountable obstacles that translate to no real way out (ability). Honest conversations about these questions are painful but necessary. Compassion for others can only grow out of a heart that is willing to see, hear, and consider harsh realities that, frankly, we would often rather ignore. In the end if all we can come to is an understanding and acknowledgment that issues of marginalization and vulnerability are complex and convoluted, and that the pat answer, even spoken in well-meaning Christian-ese, simply doesn’t work, we have taken our own step toward the kindness of God.
We pondered these things as we made sandwiches and filled brown bags for the hungry crowd lined up outside a neighborhood church. We wondered about the exhausting routine that survival here requires as we pressed cups of hot cocoa into cold, rough hands. We wrestled with the "choices" faced by the girls working the street, many of them mere children, as we gave them sparkly purple bags of glitter eye shadow and nail polish. We rejoiced when our offer to pray for them, right then and there, was accepted and received, and we despaired, silently praying anyway, when it was not. We cried over the deeply wounded souls that came in off the streets for Nail Day. We played games with them, prayed for them, and painted their nails, now freshly aware that devastating trauma had been perpetrated upon many there...perpetrated, endured, and survived.
It's safe to say we didn't change anything in the Tenderloin, but the Tenderloin did change us. We probed the why behind the what that so often disturbs or frustrates many of us, resulting, honestly, in an apathetic disengagement. Though it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the issues in a place like the Tenderloin, one thing was impressed on us and will not, we hope, be soon forgotten: even the smallest of kindnesses speaks volumes about human worth and the loving God who created us all to bear His image. And if it is the kindness of God that brings us to repentance, every little bit holds massive promise. Every little bit.