I stared as a woman in a red superhero suit walked through the front doors of a homeless drop-in ministry. My inner giggles resembled the behavior of Elle’s nemesis in the movie Legally Blonde when Elle stopped in at a law school party dressed as a Playboy Bunny. But instead of everyone turning to snicker at her, care ministers and guests continued chatting as if she were dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. Both the movie’s creators and the care ministers behavior reflected the same belief: all humans made in the image of God need dignity. They modeled love by their acceptance of a woman wearing a red cape decorated with gold stars.
It didn’t take many visits to the homeless ministry for superhero capes to become the norm—so did bulging suitcases, men wearing short skirts, and the odor of unwashed bodies mixed with cigarette smoke. I learned to sit just beyond the limit of my sense of smell as I used an iPad to help individuals experiencing homelessness request new socks or a shower. I lamented with men I’d met just five seconds before that we’d run out of boxers and offered only tighty-whities. After I clicked through a person’s requested items on the iPad, I’d pray for them.
Once a man wearing a mud-stained t-shirt reached across the table and grabbed my hand as I closed my eyes to pray. I thought, “I don’t know where his hand has been or what he last did with it,” but I resisted the impulse to pull my hand out of his. And in that moment I sensed that as God’s creation made in his image, he needed the safe touch of another human soul as we sought the heart of our heavenly father—and so did I. From then on I offered my hand to everyone I prayed with regardless of the story the dirt under their fingernails suggested. Some people took my hand without hesitation, some flat out refused my offer of prayer. Walks to wash the dirt off my hands from people who lived under bridges and hid behind dumpsters became a budding liturgy of gratitude. Jesus came into the midst of our germs and grime without running water or bacterial soap.
A frustrating day for me might involve a recurring argument with my teenager and I’d retreat into a Netflix binge or a walk in the woods. A homeless individual’s hard day might include theft of all their personal belongings, a night spent in freezing weather, or even rape. No wonder K2 or a superhero’s cape seemed like a needed escape. And I realized, as one coworker reflected, that “I had judged the way homeless individuals carried their burdens, rather than listening to them share about the burdens they carried.”
As I checked the boxes for Chapstick and shoes, I listened to their stories and realized no easy answers existed for a father who dragged around guilt for his absence during his child’s murder, or the inability of a woman to wash her memory clean of her mother’s trade—drugs in exchange for the body of her six-year-old self. In comparison my own childhood, though marred by a sinful world, felt perfect. The trauma of my neighbors experiencing homelessness roamed outside the depths of any nightmare my mind could form.
One day, I helped the woman in the superhero costume request a toothbrush and a sweater. I offered her my hand and pondered my own needs that I longed for a friend to pray for me. Then I asked God to remind the caped woman that she was specially made in his image. As God’s creation, he loved her and made her to reveal him to the rest of the world in a way only she could. I prayed that God would reveal to her that she really was a wonder woman. But her cape reminded me that she knew that already—I was the one who needed to remember. After we said amen, she looked me in the eye, smiled, and said, “That was a good prayer.” I smiled back and said, “Thank you.”
Cover image by Matt Collamer
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