The Shadows of the Night
It’s pretty quiet at the church most days during this pandemic. There’s a cat without a tail that walks by the window of my study every now and then. Occasionally a driver will slowly meander through our parking lot confusedly staring at their phone (Google sometimes leads people astray). A family of deer has wandered by a few times. And last week, there was a woman sitting on the lawn. I’ll call her Danielle.
She was middle-aged, her shoes were off, and her feet looked swollen. Her face was weather worn. It was a ferociously windy day. She was not in a good place. She had managed to get to Lethbridge from Medicine Hat for a short-term job but had quickly found herself in a violent and frightening situation involving drugs, guns, knives and God only knows what else. So, she had simply fled on foot. She had been wandering around the city for two days, filling up her water bottle from our church’s outside tap. She had no money, little food, and no way home.
So, there she was, just sitting on our church’s lawn in the wind. I asked her how we could help. She just broke down in tears. She had made her way to Lethbridge because she had no money, and she thought this job might help. She was also so desperately lonely. She had hardly existed outside her apartment for the past fourteen months. She had wanted something—anything!—new to ease the crushing loneliness she felt during this pandemic. But now all she wanted was to go home.
We looked into various options to get her back to Medicine Hat. There are no more buses running. There was a shuttle that ran somewhat regularly, but that would have taken her through Calgary and would have taken her the better part of a day. She wouldn’t have been able to leave until the following day. I knew the weather was about to turn very cold and that she couldn’t be outside much longer.
I decided to take her back to Medicine Hat. As you might expect with someone who has had little contact with other human beings for the last fourteen months, Danielle was eager to talk. She talked pretty much non-stop for entire ninety-minute drive. And her story was a predictably sad one. Born in northern BC, her parents split up when she was nine. Her dad was a drunk and prone to violence. She left home at 16 and bounced around from Edmonton to Grande Prairie and all around the north working as a cook on oil rigs.
“I was addicted to crack cocaine for eighteen years, but I been through rehab and kicked the habit,” she said proudly, although this was followed by a breezy acknowledgement that she had been smoking meth to escape the loneliness of the pandemic. She had nearly died giving birth to a stillborn child and had never been able to get pregnant again. She said this with no emotion whatsoever. “I’ve never been very good with men, she said. I never find the good ones and I don’t put up with the bad ones.”
She told me that she had multiple times been beaten to within an inch of her life, whether from domestic partners or in drug deals gone sideways. “God’s been looking out for me, though,” she said. “I’ve never gotten a criminal record.” Given what she had shared about the contours of her life thus far, I marvelled that this was the evidence that she cited for God’s care.
I asked her about her religious background. She was raised Roman Catholic, she said, but now she was “just a Christian.” “I got no use for that angry God that’s always zapping people when they make mistakes.” I told her I didn’t believe in that God either. There was a brief lull in the conversation before she said, “You know, I’ve walked a lot of miles alone in my life. I’m tired of being so lonely. I was sitting by the canal by your church, talking to the geese, and praying to God… Send me an angel! And then someone came by and gave me their jacket because I was cold. And then you helped me. God’s looking out for me, I know it. God has a plan for me.”
“What’s God’s plan for you?” I asked her. “I have this dream,” she said. “I want to build a city block full of mini houses where people can live who need second chances. People getting out of jail, people who have made mistakes, people who are trying to get cleaned up.” “There would be a zero tolerance, she hastily added. “You’d have to stay clean to live there.” This last part felt like it was for my benefit. I wished she didn’t feel the need to say this, but I bit my tongue as she continued.
“It would be a real community; all the doors would open into a courtyard and there would be tables and barbecues lots of food and playgrounds for the kids. And everyone would be safe, and nobody would have to be alone.” I thought about John’s vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21, the city that no longer had need for “the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light,” the city whose gates would never be shut, where there would be no more night. “I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to make this happen,” she told me. “Maybe you’ll have to do it for me.” She laughed. I smiled and told her it was a beautiful vision.
As we were drawing closer to Medicine Hat, Danielle told me she was getting tired, but she didn’t want to fall asleep until she got home. She told me that when she was a little girl her family used to sing songs and play traditional French music together (her dad was from Quebec). “My favourite song was… I think it was called “The French Song. Do you mind if I sing it to stay awake?” “Not at all,” I replied.
And so, she sang, this beaten down woman who kept apologizing for how bad she smelled and how dirty she was, this woman with a mask crookedly fixed on her face, this woman who had been sleeping outside and communing with the geese, sang and sang and sang. And it was beautiful.
I drove down the highway, pondering the crazy directions life sometimes takes. Needless to say, when I woke up that morning, I didn’t think that I would be driving across the wind-blasted prairies listening to French folk music being belted out through a mask from the back seat of my Camry. The Lord does indeed work in mysterious ways.
When I got home later Tuesday afternoon, I googled “The French Song” and had the lyrics translated into English. The first stanza goes like this:
When the sun wakes up in the mountains,
And the moon says goodbye to the earth,
The shadows of the night flee from the morning.
New light frees the world again.
I dropped off Danielle at a rundown looking apartment in Medicine Hat. She was relieved to be home and looked forward to a bath and a long sleep. She hadn’t slept in three days, she said. The coyotes and other fears of the “shadows of night” had kept her awake. But, for now at least, the shadows had fled.
The above is an edited portion of a sermon preached at Lethbridge Mennonite Church, Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2021.
The featured image is called “Lanterns Burning” by Heather Rose, and is taken from the 2020-21 Christian Seasons Calendar.