Magdalene is a residential recovery program for women who have survived lives of violence, prostitution and addiction.
Fellow saints and sinners, today was to feature a weird Jesus saying, but something profound happened yesterday that I have to tell you about. Because it is not every day that I get propositioned by a prostitute. In fact, yesterday evening at the Citgo gas station in inner-city Atlanta was a first.
I didn’t see her until she was standing a few yards away. By then she had me cornered, my hand on the gas pump, my back against the fuel dispenser. When I saw her, I knew there was no escape from what would probably be the common line I got these days in our neighborhood: “Mam, could you spare some money for the bus?,” or “Mam, I’m really hungry and I’m just looking for another dollar.”
This time, though, she preceded her proposition with an introduction. “Mam, My sister and I are standing on the corner over there trying to get $5 each for candles and dinner, but I just got out of prison for prostitution and I don’t want to do it anymore because I’m pregnant. I know you think I’m trash, and I am- but would you let me wash your windows for $5?”
An interesting proposition. This was also the first time that anyone had introduced themself to me as “trash.” The admission elicited a sharp pang of pity. Regardless of whether this woman was telling the truth about her situation, I couldn’t let her claim go unchallenged. “Mam, you’re not trash,” I protested. “God loves you!”
“I know God loves me,” she said. “He’s about the only one who loves me these days.”
“So you’re a prostitute and you’re four months’ pregnant?,” I asked.
“Yes,” with a grudging nod, then lifting up her baggy shirt to show me the protruding bulge. “I don’t want to do it anymore because I’m pregnant now. And I’m HIV positive. But sometimes I have to. Sometimes when I explain I’m pregnant, they’ll say, ‘Well you still have a mouth.’ She gave me a knowing look. (Apparently blow jobs were still not off limits.)
She went on. “My sister is over there trying to get a client. But she’s menstruating. I know that’s gross, but…,” she trailed off. “We’re just trying to get candles, because we’re staying in a vacant apartment across the street right now.”
Her story was becoming frighteningly believable now. My heart was starting to hurt for her and for me and this sorry lot that we human beings can be. So little ultimately separated me from this woman in her tragic predicament. She was just another sinner born into a different family and a poorer neighborhood with less education.
“I don’t have any cash but I can drive you to the food mart down the street and buy you dinner and candles,” I said.
“Thank you, Mam,” she stammered, “but I’m really smelly. I try to clean myself up but I don’t want to stink up your car. And I don’t want your daughter to see me. (My two-year-old, Sam, was watching the strange proceedings from her car seat.)
“What’s your name?,” I asked.
“Nikki,” she said.
I insisted Nikki get in my car. She finally agreed. She was smelly, her hair greasy, her clothes soiled, as probably anyone obliged to do cheap sex tricks for a fast food meal would be.
I asked her if she wanted to keep her baby. She said she had prayed and asked others to pray that God would remove “it” from her, but God hadn’t. So now she was going to the local clinic and seeing a “Ms. So-and-So” who was helping her prepare for putting her baby up for adoption.
“There are so many couples out there who can’t have babies and want to,” she had been told. And so she was going to have her baby. This twenty-eight-year-old, just out of jail having served a one-year sentence for prostitution and now jobless, homeless and HIV-positive, was going to have her baby. And here we were driving her to the mini mart to get her some basic groceries.
When our shopping run was over, Nikki asked to be dropped off at the apartment across the street- the one that she was not supposed to be staying in but at least was a safe place to lay her head, even if it didn’t have water or electricity.
I asked her if she had a phone. (Duh.) “No” was the obvious answer.
I asked her if she would like my phone number- that I could put her in touch with some friends who run a really successful residential recovery program for women just like her. (The Magdalene House, in Nashville, Tennessee, would be just the right fit, even if it meant paying Nikki’s bus fare to Nashville; and if not the Magdalene House, there were other programs here in Atlanta; there was always hope.) She said, “Sure,” a bit happily surprised that I’d even offer to stay in touch.
After some unsuccessful rummaging through my purse, we were out of luck in our search of a pen.
“How shall we stay in touch?,” I finally asked.
“I’m always on the corner at the gas station,” she said. ”You can always find me there.” (Only minutes earlier when we were pulling out of the mini mart parking lot, she had said under her breath, “I don’t want to go back there again.” I hadn’t blamed her. I wouldn’t either.)
By now she was out of the car. After thanking me again for the groceries, she was turning to go.
“Nikki,” I said, realizing this might be the last time I’d see her, “I know it’s hard to believe right now, but God is going to take care of you and your baby. God bless you, and I’ll be praying for you!” And, maybe I was saying this for both of us, because somehow I had to believe that the God I worship was looking out for Nikki and wouldn’t let her and her unborn child slip through the cracks. Somehow I needed to believe this, because the alternative- that this woman and her baby were on a dead-end road with no hope and no future- was too hard to bear.
Nikki’s eyes lit up for the very first time and the faint edges of a smile appeared.
“Thank you,” she said.
This morning I can’t stop thinking about Nikki. I can’t stop thinking about how she got to where she was- in such a desperate place that her only meaning is putting out for a few bucks and a hot meal. And I can’t stop thinking about what it takes to help Nikki get back on her feet, so that one day she can say with conviction that she is a child of God. So that one day she can hold down a respectable job and her own apartment and have a new lease on life. What combination of government and church-run social services need to be in place to give women like Nikki hope and a future?
It is a bit strange to think that I’ve been driving past that gas station every morning and every afternoon when I take my son to and from school, having never known that a young woman named Nikki was standing there fighting just to survive. Now when we pass that run-down corner, I’ll be looking for her. I’ll be wondering how she and her little one are, and whether today they have managed to get by just washing windows.