Gather round. Pull up a chair. I’d like to tell you a true story about a woman we’ll call Shari.
Shari was a cash collector in a parking garage near a very large event center. She was in her 40’s, although she looked ten years older because of the life she had been dealt.
Shari had had a tumultuous relationship with her mother over the years. Shari was a mother too. She had a teenage daughter who brought her joy and pain. When Shari found out her 16-year-old was pregnant, she was devastated.
You see, Shari was homeless. She and her daughter lived in her car, the gas and insurance costs eating up most of the money from her part time work at the garage. After news of the pregnancy, she had knocked on her mother’s door to ask for shelter. Her mother refused even to let her take a shower.
It was at this point in her life that I met Shari. On the weekend of our encounter, I had been attending a large Christian conference in a city that was not my own. When I pulled into the parking garage, she handed me a ticket and I felt a voice inside say, “Her.”
I didn’t know what that meant. I just knew that this woman was special. So, I listened to that voice and when I exited the garage, I introduced myself. We talked and laughed for a while and went our separate ways.
Over the course of the weekend, I stopped to say hello to Shari every chance I got. At one point I threw her a clementine from across the garage. She looked at the orange treasure and smiled. “Let’s swap stories sometime,” I said to her. “Lets,” she responded, and I went into the event center.
That night was the final session of the conference. It was what everyone had been waiting for, but just as the musicians launched into worship, I heard that voice in my head say, “Go talk to Shari.” So I did.
She was in the garage, alone, everything still and silent because no one wanted to miss the final hurrah. “I am just as present here as I am in that arena,” the voice said. And I listened and felt for Him and agreed.
I sidled up to the cash collecting booth and she let me in. “What’s your story, Shari?” I asked her and she took a breath as she bravely told me her history, her pain.
“You don’t know what it’s like to be homeless,” she wept. “People look away. They don’t even treat you like you’re a human!” She covered her face.
“My daughter is pregnant and I feel hopeless. My own mother won’t even let us into her home and a car is no place to raise a teenager, let alone a baby,” she agonized.
I listened. And I cried too. Then I looked her in the eyes and told her of a man I know who loves her. I told her how this man was rejected by his family, his friends and who died to remove our shame. I told her of His church who, although they aren’t perfect, desire to listen to His call for love and can help her. I told her more, but those words were only for her ears.
The tears continued to fall and we paused as a car drove up to pay for the garage. She exchanged money and turned to me.
“Do you want to know Him?” I asked. She shook her head and in the middle of a filthy, cold, and dark parking garage Shari asked Jesus to be with her. She told Him she needed Him. She said more words that were meant only for Him.
And after she prayed, she beamed through salt encrusted cheeks, “I’ve never felt so free.”
I found the names of churches and resources for her in that particular city and when we said our goodbyes, it wasn’t really a goodbye.
For the next two years, Shari sent me regular text messages with updates on her life. She shared pictures of her new grandbaby and told me of her struggles and her wins.
I don’t know what happened, but the texts stopped abruptly. She may have bought a new phone, or just didn’t need to connect anymore, but I haven’t heard from Shari in quite some time.
I still think of this strong woman and the gift she gave to me; a reminder that God is the God who sees. He’s present with us in our shame, holding us in our pain, and no person is invisible to him, not even a homeless woman in a dirty parking garage in the middle of a bustling city.