A few months ago, a friend in St. Louis asked me to contribute books to a new children’s library in the St. Louis area.
The Sweeney’s managed to pull together two full boxes to contribute. I loaded the boxes in my car, where they stayed for two months.
This last week, we drove to St. Louis for a wedding. My friend Tom wasn’t supposed to be in town. He was supposed to be at a conference in Squaw Valley, but scheduling conflicts caused a last minute cancellation. I arranged to meet Tom for coffee on Friday morning, to deliver the books personally.
Thursday night, we stayed on the Illinois side of the river. Tom had arranged for us to meet on the west side of St. Louis, so on Friday morning, I notified Google of the destination address, and let the phone navigate my way there. Heading into St. Louis on IH64, however, there is a lot of construction. Google decided to route me a different way – up St. Clair Avenue, which would lead me right into East St. Louis, or at least to the edge.
East St. Louis – in 2007, it had the highest crime rate in the United States. The city still struggles with high crime, and I knew I needed to get back on the highway before I put myself in danger.
Because I wasn’t supposed to be on that road. I wasn’t supposed to be delivering books to my friend Tom. He wasn’t even supposed to be in St. Louis.
But I stayed on St. Clair Avenue for awhile. I saw the burned houses, the blight, the vacant stores and the vacant streets.
I heard the silence. I felt the pain. But I got off the road and back onto the highway as quickly as I could.
After coffee, I decided to drive back the same way I came. This time I noticed more: boarded up windows, rusty metal buildings, and a man pushing a shopping cart with all of his possessions.
I asked, ‘God, I’m not supposed to be here. What are you asking me to do?”
On Friday afternoon, we moved closer to St. Louis. We were going to stay in the hotel with other wedding guests, but at the last minute, we decided to rent a nicely renovated townhouse that was made available for us. We checked with local sources – the area was “in transition,” but considered safe.
But God wasn’t finished with me yet. God had a place for me to be. God wanted me to see something.
As I drove down the street to the townhouse, I realized that we would share sidewalks for a few days with Peter & Paul Community Services. PPCS provides housing and support services to the homeless. During our stay, on some incredibly hot days, we encountered volunteers handing out bottled water to those who needed it. Across the alley from us, there sat a building that housed the Society of Friends (Quakers), who are known for their community outreach to the needy.
We shared sidewalks and parks with people who lived in housing sponsored by the St. Louis Housing Authority.
And across the street, behind the house, we had perfect access to Saint Vincent de Paul Parish, a Catholic parish whose members serve hot meals to the hungry one week each month. Every day of the week, volunteers at Saint Vincent de Paul’s Parish provide sandwiches and fruit to the hungry at lunchtime.
We walked the streets, smiling back at our new neighbors. We greeted the children, playing on the swings.
I wasn’t supposed to be there. But where else would I be?
This is, after all, where Christ is found. Christ is found with the poor, and with the orphan, and with the widow and with the sick.
Highway construction caused Google to push me onto St. Clair Avenue and near East St. Louis. But I believe God, not Google, was my navigator in the LaSalle Park area of town….God showed me where I was supposed to be that weekend. Now I am charged with being the hands of Christ in my own city.
Tell me, God, where am I supposed to be back home?
Photo credit: “Books from my Childhood,” Susy Morris, Flickr; “Abandoned Home,” Ken Fager, Flickr; “Little Red Church,” stlouisreview.com. All other pictures original to Cathy Sweeney.