Some of you may have read the following portion. It's appeared, in slightly different form, here.
Part II: What is my vocational calling?
Another story. This past August I was coming home from seeing my counselor when I drove past an older woman on the opposite side of the road, taking a photograph of the geese who hang out at one of the local restaurants. She had several knapsacks, so I figured her to be traveling. I swung around at a gas station and pulled up and rolled down my passenger window. "Sister," I said, "Can I offer you a ride somewhere?"
She was about my age, maybe a little older. She wore glasses that looked small on her big face, braided her long hair streaked with grey in a ponytail down her back. She wore an ankle-length denim skirt, high-top sneakers, and a flannel shirt rolled up to her elbows. She giggled when she answered. She said, "I was just taking pictures of the geese. You never know when you'll see something like this again."
She asked where I was going. I said, "Well, I'm heading home, but where are you going?" She said, “Minneapolis,” and asked how far it was and I told her it was about an hour. "Oh," she said. "I guess I'd have a long walk." She asked again how far I was going and in that moment I could have told the truth and said I was heading about 20 miles further (I did need some dog food there) and then dropped her off at the Minnesota border without an ounce of guilt. Instead, I said, "Sister, I'll take you to Minneapolis."
She tossed her things in the back seat and got in and we exchanged names. Hers was Cora or it might have been "Coral.” It’s not unusual, when on the road, to name yourself something that reflects how you think of yourself. I was facing north when I picked her up and she was surprised when I turned around and headed back to the interstate: "Isn't Minneapolis that direction?" she said, pointing back the way she'd been walking.
"No," I said. "It's west of where we are."
"Oh, I would have had a very long walk and gotten nowhere!" she said.
Almost immediately she told me she was a street preacher who ministered to the homeless, and that God had told her to leave her home a year and a half ago and take to the road. I said I was also a preacher. We asked what each other was. She was "just Christian," she said, "Just Jesus out of the book." She had heard of Unitarian Universalists and had met a few and been impressed by them. She filled up nearly every second of our drive with talk and questions and confessions.
She left her abusive husband, she said, about 5 years ago back outside Denver. She had begun this trip 3 days before at a truck stop in South Dakota. She was resting between rides and had been approached by a Jamaican woman whose husband was a trucker and who asked if she'd come home with them to help the Jamaican woman get herself together. But then this woman had stopped taking her meds, Cora told me, and progressively got more and more aggressive, yelling and berating her, finally literally throwing her bags out of the truck when they'd stopped for gas at the station where I turned around. Cora camped for two nights in the woods nearby, to pray and settle herself, before heading back out. The night before she attended midweek services at a Lutheran church not far out of town—I know the place, it's a few miles from my house—and she'd heard from people there that there are a lot of homeless people in Minneapolis. So Cora decided to head there next but apparently hadn't a very good idea of where it was in relation to that part of Wisconsin. I told her she'd likely traveled through Minneapolis riding with the trucker and his wife.
She had been born in Alsace-Lorraine, she said, but couldn't speak more than rudimentary French and German, and her mother was long dead. Her father was ungodly, she said, and dead to her. She'd grown up somewhere out west, she was very vague about where, and mentioned a daughter who was married. I tried on occasion to ask about her family but it was like trying to blow into a whirlwind. She was a talking machine, sometimes punctuating sentences with "Praise God!" and "Lord, that's your way!" and sometimes girlish giggles.
She was attending an online bible college out of Australia run by an evangelical couple that delivered two types of courses, free and paid for. She was taking the courses for free so she wouldn't get a degree but she didn't think that was important for the ministry she was doing. She had no idea where she was going or what she would do when she got there except to preach the word to people as she could and if they'd listen and rely on their goodness. She said that God and Jesus had kept her safe and healthy all her time on the road. She didn't care much, she said, of what anyone else's opinion of her was, she would just be as crazy as Jesus wanted her in order to do his work. I told her she was a fool for Christ. She allowed she'd never heard that phrase but she thought it suited her perfectly, and she repeated the phrase several times during our ride.
She asked me about Unitarian Universalism and I gave her a short answer about no one knowing about an afterlife but we know we have this one and it's important how we treat each other here. She thought that was wonderful and wanted to experience a UU service so I told her where the nearest congregation was in the area where I would drop her off. She mentioned her reliance on libraries several times so I told her the perfect spot I could think of was at one end of Nicollet Mall by the county library. She said that sounded perfect. When we got there I pulled off to the side of the street and helped her unload and then shoulder everything, We exchanged hugs and "God bless you”s, and I watched her waddle around the corner before driving off and heading back home.
Later, my wife would ask me "Do you think she was crazy?" and I'd answer, "Yes." Cora mentioned having refused to take mental health exams in order to receive social services, claiming that Second Timothy says you can't be both crazy and a Christian, and since she was Christian she wasn't crazy. I failed to find this suggestion in Second Timothy or anywhere else in the Bible.
But on a larger, communal scale, did I think she was a danger to herself or other people? Not for a second. She seemed to have a solid understanding of her life on the road and what it entailed, and if she didn't have it when she started, by this time she had. She seemed to know how to stay safe—she told me she'd never been physically harmed by anyone and I believe her—and when to recharge her energies. After all, she'd spent a couple nights alone in order to pray and "get herself together." She didn't seem too concerned about getting anywhere in particular or about getting something done. She wasn't upset when she found she'd been heading in the wrong direction. She seemed content to drift along, going where her God sent her and doing what she thought her God wanted her to do.
From what she told me what her God wanted from her isn't very different from what my God wants from me: Serve people andhelp them be as human as possible. She didn't want anyone to stop doing anything he or she wasn't interested in stopping, just maybe to think about doing something else and offering to be with them while they went about their lives. She seemed extraordinarily happy and she said she wasn't on any medications—since she was not crazy—and didn't do drugs or alcohol or smoke. She just liked people, she said.
I have known many preachers in my life, and many of them I would model myself after, but Cora’s way of being with people seems the most satisfying for me. It was on meeting her I began to have first thoughts about shifting what I have always assumed is my calling—that of a parish minister who spends much time on the streets and opens the church to local homeless and troubled—to a minister whose parish is the streets among the homeless and addicted. It’s a subtle but informed shift as it moves my perspective from bringing others inside with me to being outside with them.