Please enjoy this little excursion from the normal posts about my life.
Natalie shrugged on her backpack and slipped on her most comfortable walking shoes. The Kitchen, a Denver outreach located beneath highway 87, opened every morning at 8 a.m. It was three miles away from Natalie’s apartment.
She opened the front door and looked over her shoulder at the darkened bedroom where her boyfriend slept. He came home at two this morning from somewhere. She pretended to sleep when she heard the bed squeak and felt him slide between the covers. He smelled of cigarettes, and she wondered how in the world he got the money for cigarettes when they could barely pay the rent?
Sometimes, Natalie didn’t want to know why his hours were erratic or why he couldn’t keep a job. Her paychecks, however small, disappeared as soon as she cashed them at the check cashing place. The coffee can that held their money was always empty, except for the cash she stashed in an old paint can behind the Christmas decorations in the front closet. That went to rent.
Natalie closed the front door and twisted the key until she heard the click of the deadbolt. She looked at the men loitering in groups in the green area that separated the two large brick apartments. Graffiti nearly obliterated the name of the apartment building. The noise of the highway almost caused her to miss the soft chirp of morning birds. She clutched her backpack tighter, glancing at the men who looked at her in a way that made her wish she had the money to buy a gun.
She walked with her head up and her eyes fixed ahead. One man in a group near the edge of the housing area gave her not a second glance. Natalie lived with him for a year before he kicked her out for another woman. He had been sleeping with the other woman for three months prior to the break-up. Natalie met her current boyfriend at a bar. He took her home. They had sex and that’s how she came to live with him. He worked, she guessed, somewhere, and she kept the apartment clean, cooked for him, and gave him her paychecks in exchange for a warm place to live.
Vaguely, she recalled her ex-husband–a man who was ten years older when she married him–that was good to her, but she wasn’t willing to have children.
If she was honest, she thought, the marriage failed because she felt restless. Natalie felt restless now, wanting to leave, go somewhere, or be something, but necessity kept her in this place. Winters were hard in Denver and shelters were more dangerous than this place. She breathed better as she walked away from the apartments, stretching her long legs and walking faster towards the place where she picked up food every week.
A mile and a half down the road, a man was sweeping the front of a church. It was one of those big churches. Granite faces, clean glass windows, and every Sunday she would walk over here just to see the folks leave. The men wore matching black suits, white shirts, and ties. The women always wore dresses. He looked up and smiled, but she knew not to approach him.
She tried that once, but they were only interested if she converted. Her boyfriend didn’t like their unannounced visits either. Women brought food. He liked them better. Food gifts she welcomed, too. It wasn’t often she tasted fresh, homemade pastries still warm from the oven. These gifts had a price.
The women would pressure her to become like them. They were the only true religion. The only true church. Eventually, she stopped opening the door to them. They stopped coming. Natalie smiled back at the man and kept going until she reached an intersection. Her feet matched the ache in her soul.
The ache reverberated deep and never went away. She crossed at the light, noting the shiny cars, a woman doing her make-up in front of her rear view mirror, and the graffiti that marked the pillar of the highway.
Natalie walked past another group of young men lingering near the train depot. Most wore pants that sagged to their butt, talking about their exploits from the previous night. The Kitchen already had a line out the front door of their small building. She got behind a woman who had a stolen grocery store cart.
“Jimmy got a job!” The woman, named Sunshine, smiled revealing her missing teeth.
“Happy for you.” Natalie said with a smile.
Jimmy was Sunshine’s husband. She had five children. Two of them were involved in a gang. The third was in jail. Two more were just elementary school age.
A man was staring at Natalie. The stare become too noticeable to ignore, and she raised her eyes to glare at him.
Move on, nothing for sale here.
The closer she moved in the line toward the man by the door, the more uncomfortable and strangely eager she felt at meeting this man who wouldn’t stop staring. She thought about abandoning the food pick-up today, but remembered the empty cupboards at home and how angry her boyfriend would feel at having nothing to eat except stale bread from the freezer. Natalie resolved to fight her way through.
“Excuse me.” The man said politely, touching her arm.
She flinched and jerked back. “What?!”
“Sorry.” He dropped his arm to his side. “Please step over here. God wants me to tell you something.”
“I’ve heard it before. I’m here to get food. Just go!” Natalie moved another two steps towards the people who helped her get all the stuff she needed for the week. They rationed the food and made sure no one left with more than they needed.
The man said, “What if I offered you food guaranteeing you would never go hungry again?”
“I know every nut-case in the inner city area likes to come here, and whatever your high on, I don’t want it. I have enough troubles of my own.”
“Like the man at home who is not your husband? And the man before him wasn’t your husband either. You had a husband but you are divorced.” He had a strange look in his eyes.
Love and a kind of tenderness made his brown eyes look bright, unearthly, but probably because Natalie had forgotten what tenderness looked like. She stared at the blisters on her hands, the roughness of her skin, and remembered the last time she looked in the mirror. Her skin sagged beneath her eyes and her eyes were dull, not like this man’s.
“What are you, a fortune-teller?” Natalie gave a harsh laugh after saying this while wanting to weep, feeling a longing inside for the tenderness in his voice. “I don’t want no church; none of that religious crap.”
“What religious crap?” He took her by the arm and led her to a bench under the shade of a tree, not far from the watchful eyes of the woman guarding the front of the food bank.
They sat down. He gestured at someone who brought her an egg sandwich. She bit into it, tasting the freshness, the relish, the mayonnaise, and how the bread wasn’t stale. He had her attention.
“Did you follow me? How do you know all this?” She looked at him with eyes narrowed. Would he offer her something better than her boyfriend? Would she have to go home to her boyfriend today? Sleeping with this man wouldn’t be bad. He looked like he had money.
“God told me. Now what religious crap?” He used the word ‘crap.’ What religious man used the word ‘crap’? He didn’t dress like the granite church.
“That I would have to join their church to be worthy of their god’s love. That there are three celestial kingdoms, and if I wanted to be worthy of Jesus’ love, I would have to live by his rules in order to get to heaven. They said this over the course of months, but that was what they were saying.”
The man sighed. “I see.” He turned slightly and took a black book she hadn’t noticed sitting on the bench beside him. “Do you know what this is?”
“It’s the same color as what they showed me.”
“But it’s not the same.” He said. “It’s a Bible. There is only one Heaven and one Hell. It’s in the Bible. All of that is in this book. Mainly, Jesus wanted me to tell you that He loves you. I can prove it. You’ve been searching so long to be loved.” The man proceeded to open the book. “If Jesus wanted us to earn His love, why would the cross have been needed? You do know the story, right? How Jesus took our sins on the cross?”
Natalie forgot about the laundry mat. She leaned over his shoulder as he began sharing verses. Distant memories of her time in church trickled back through the darkness that she felt had engulfed her life all these years.
“John 7:38 says, All who believe in me should drink! ¹ As the scriptures said concerning me, Rivers of living water shall flow from within him. Therefore he shall never thirst, because this water that Christ gives shall be in him a well of water. He can never be reduced to extremity that has in himself a fountain of supply and satisfaction. (a.) Ever ready, for it shall be in him. The principle of grace planted in him is the spring of his comfort; see John 7:38. A good man is satisfied from himself, for Christ dwells in his heart. The anointing abides in him; he needs not sneak to the world for comfort; the work and the witness of the Spirit in the heart furnish him with a firm foundation of hope and an overflowing fountain of joy.” The man read more scripture and more commentary to her as the shadows changed direction with the passing of time. People moved around them as if a man sitting with a woman reading the Bible was normal.
Natalie forgot about her aching feet, even her hurting heart, as she listened. When he stopped for breath, Natalie realized the time.
“I’ve got to go!” Fear settled over her again. “But I don’t want to go home.”
“I know.” He handed her his card. “This is the address of a women’s shelter nearby. On the back of the card is my number. If you have any questions about Jesus’ love and what He is offering to you to quench that ache in your heart, call me. But don’t go back. That kind of life will never satisfy you.”
Natalie wondered if she should retrieve her personal things at the apartment, but as she stood in the early afternoon light, she realized she owned nothing really that was worth going back to retrieve. What struck her was how this man actually cared about her choices, and didn’t want anything in return. “Shelters aren’t safe though.”
“Put your trust in Jesus and let Him guide you. A shelter is just a temporary place. A beginning. This particular one can direct you to different places that help with things like job skills so you can move forward.” He handed her the black Bible. “You need this.”
“But this belongs to you.” She caressed the leather cover after she took it from him.
“The Word is a gift for everyone. Don’t put your trust in Man’s inventions.” He tapped his chest. “I’ve got the Word in my heart.” He walked away to the parking lot where the man climbed into a black Mercedes.
Natalie looked at the card and began to walk towards the address for the shelter. Later, she would leave a message on her boyfriend’s cell phone, telling him she was leaving, but he never picked up, even when she called the next day, too. As she lay in a cot on the second day at the shelter, she heard a woman nearby praying to Jesus. Her quiet whispers were soft, weeping, and comforting.
Natalie prayed, too, but silently and without moving from her cot. She clutched the Bible to her chest, understanding the kind of food the man in black meant now.
Natalie would never go hungry.
Story based on the Samaritan Woman at the Well. Read John 4.