Her demeanor was puzzling to us. She obviously needed help but she was so reluctant to accept it. Jessy had climbed out of the back of the prison van a free woman on a busy downtown Houston street along with two other newly released prisoners. Our ministry group greeted them warmly and explained that we had come to offer our assistance. We knew they likely had little or no money and that they would be hungry. The prison fed them breakfast at 3:45 A.M. and they probably wouldn’t get another chance to eat until they were able to make contact with friends or family. They had to figure out how to do that and they needed to make phone calls. They needed to lose the “prison look” so they would not be viewed as easy prey by pimps and drug dealers.
We suggested walking across the street to our ministry space where we could offer hamburgers, properly fitting clothes, and use of our cell phones. The other two ladies trusted us immediately. After all, it probably seemed unlikely that a group of middle aged suburban women standing on a street corner in a run down part of town had come there with sinister motives. Plus, word gets around. They had been hoping we’d be there to meet them.
But Jessy was reluctant. She smiled shyly and said, “No thank you.” Could we just tell her how to get to the county jail? We tried to discern more. Why the county jail? Did she have any family in Houston? Did the prison give her a voucher for a Greyhound bus so she could travel elsewhere? She really didn’t want to talk to us but we finally figured out that she had a friend who lived a short distance from the county jail. If someone would tell her how to get to the jail, she could walk to her friend’s house. She had no bus fare. She wouldn’t know what bus to take if she did. We offered to let her call her friend to see if she could pick her up. No, the friend didn’t have a phone.
She began to understand that her only options were to allow us to help her or trust someone else. We certainly weren’t very scary looking. She decided she would go across the street with us and get something to eat. She ate a burger and chips but turned down the offer of a cookie. “No sweets,” she said. “That’s how I lost my teeth.” She was missing 3 lower front teeth which marred her otherwise pretty face and smile.
Her clothes hung like loose bags so she decided she’d accept something to wear, but she was obviously reluctant. She seemed shy and spoke very little. She brushed her hair and tied it back, a huge improvement over the scraggly tangled mess she walked in with. But she wouldn’t accept any jewelry.
As we ate and distributed the clothing we talked with all three women about their plans for getting wherever they needed to go. The others made several phone calls and eventually had arrangements set up. Jessy made no calls. The one friend she could go to didn’t have a phone. We told her we would walk with her to the nearby metro station and figure out what bus to take to get to the county jail. We would give her bus fare. But we were worried. She seemed so lost. Would she be able to find her way? What if her friend didn’t even live there anymore? But she was adamant. That was where she wanted to go.
When everyone was ready we prayed together for God’s protection and for his power and strength in their lives and we gave thanks for friends and family and for second chances. Two of the women, including Jessy, needed to go the metro station. The other was going to McDonald’s to wait for a friend who had promised to come for her. As we walked down the block we talked about the wonderfully, unseasonably, cool weather and the breeze that an earlier rain had brought to us. We walked past homeless people and detoured around a blocked sidewalk warning of dangerous debris falling from an abandoned building. But our new friends breathed in their freedom with obvious exhilaration. “Outside’ was beautiful to them.
We had to walk past the McDonald’s to get to the metro station, so it was easy to show everyone where they needed to go. Once at the metro we went inside to the information window. Jessy was given a bus number to get to the county jail and told she could catch it on the platform outside. The other woman with us needed to get on the metro rail from another platform. We said goodbyes and split up, heading in different directions. My ministry partners on this day went with the other ladies. I walked out to the platform with Jessy. “Would you like me to wait with you until your bus gets here?” I asked. “Yes!” she replied, with the most certainty and confidence I had heard from her all afternoon. Surprised by her unexpected change in demeanor, I said, “OK. I’d be happy to.”
Then, as a whirlwind gush of information poured from her, everything suddenly became clear. “I was afraid to trust you,” she revealed. “One time before, someone gave me some help, food and other things. But it was a trick. They played a trick on me, so I was afraid of you.” It seems Jessy had been down on her luck and desperately in need of help. She trusted a stranger who gave her something to eat and some things she needed. But it was not the kind gift she thought it was. The stranger demanded tit for tat. I did something for you, now you have to do something for me. Jessy ended up serving time for prostitution.
I often wonder how, by the grace of God, I came to live in my shoes when so many others here in my own city live a life of one hardship after another. No doubt Jessy made plenty of bad choices along the way, but you know what? So have I. I can’t judge her because I haven’t lived her life. And the life I have lived has been littered with sin and mistakes and wrong headed choices. Yet, here I sit, typing on my laptop in my comfortable home about a woman who had to force herself to accept our help and pray that it wasn’t a trap. I felt honored that she had, finally, decided she could trust us.
I hugged Jessy tightly before she got on her bus. It was hard to see her go. I would have preferred to take her to a homeless shelter but it was not my decision to make. Yet I knew there was no guarantee her friend would still be living in the same location or that she would be willing and able to offer a place to stay and a chance to start again. When the bus pulled away it was time to meet back up with my friends and head home. But as I walked away from the platform I prayed that Jessy would be able to find the welcoming friend she was looking for. It was, in my mind, such a slim hope to pin a future on.
* Not her real name.
Every one of the women we serve has her own story and each of us, my friends and I, connect with them individually in different ways. We all keep our own “Freedom Bus Diaries” in our hearts. My thanks to all the other “church ladies” who stand on Webster Street to meet the prison van. I am blessed to stand with you. Kathie Gallagher