A Change of Heart

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Author: Br. Jerry Smith

Most individuals stranded in Milwaukee who come to St Ben’s asking for assistance arrive at our doors penniless. So I was surprised a few days ago when Jake informed me that in his case lack of cash was not the problem. His family had Money-grammed him $100, but he knew not the location of either a Walmart where he could retrieve it, nor the transit center from where he could catch a bus back home to Marinette. He had spent the previous night outside at a bus shelter, and he wept now as he told me how scared and alienated he was feeling in this big city.

A few minutes later we were driving to Walmart, then heading for the bus station. But enroute Jake asked if we could stop at a bar to buy cigarettes. I pulled over as close as I could to the snow-bank-laden curb, traffic rushing past on the busy street. A minute later Jake was back at the car, saying, “A lady told me they sell them cheaper at Sunburst Foods, two blocks down the street. Can we stop there instead?” I bit my tongue—hard--as I started the car, and then, two blocks later, again pulled off the street and looked for another parking spot.  

Cigarette purchase complete, we headed for the bus station, bought the ticket and learned that departure would be at 9:00 pm. That left time to get back to St Ben’s Community Meal for dinner, then once more to the bus station for bon voyage.

Late the following afternoon a co-worker said to me, “That guy you drove to the bus is on the phone for you.” I thought, “How nice; he’s calling me from Marinette to thank me for helping him.” But that wasn’t the message at all. Rather, he said, “I’m still at the bus station, and I’m wondering if you can come, pick me up and take me back to St Ben’s for dinner.” WHAT? It turned out that last night’s bus had experienced mechanical problems and the trip was cancelled; Jake and a fellow inconvenienced traveler had spent the night in a hotel room paid for by the bus company.

Now, by coincidence, I was leaving in a few minutes to deliver another person to the station, so I agreed to pick up Jake there and bring him back for dinner. However, when I arrived, it was not only Jake who wanted to come to dinner, but two of his newly-found friends as well. “Oh, well, the more the merrier,” I thought as we all jammed into my compact car.   

In the St Ben’s meal hall the three mingled easily with the other approximately 150 guests, sang along with the music provided by a volunteer guitarist, and stocked up on snacks for the bus ride to Marinette. Later, on the ride back to the station they exuberantly commented about the people they had met, the quality of the food they had eaten, the warmth of the hospitality they had experienced. “Is it possible for me to get a job working with this organization?” Jake asked as he got out of the car.

Not an insignificant change of heart for a young man who barely twenty-four hours earlier had wept as he spilled out to me deep feelings of fear and isolation here in this big city.