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I know that it’s easy these days to complain about politics and government. Here’s the thing, “we the people” is really just each one of us. “The government” is made up of a bunch of individual people. So when someone says, “the City/State/Country should do this or shouldn’t do that” they’re saying “someone other than me” should or shouldn’t do something.

This afternoon I happened to be sitting in the passenger side of a marked fire department vehicle that had pulled over so the person driving could make a phone call.

We could hear the telltale sounds of a mentally ill person screaming, a not totally unusual sound on the streets of New York. I usually think of it more biblically as “the voice of one calling out in the wilderness.” A sound that makes you wonder is it John the Baptist? Or someone who thinks they are John the Baptist?

The driver of the vehicle and I, looked toward the person, assessed that they were not a danger to themselves or others (as evidenced by the person sitting on the sidewalk talking to themselves), then turned back to the matter at hand — ordering take out.

Suddenly a rather obnoxious knock occurred on my window. It was not the knock of someone afraid. It also wasn’t the knock of someone asking for help or in need of directions. You might think how the heck can you size up the sound of a knock on the window? Trust me, I know the difference between a desperate knock, a kind knock, and a snooty entitled knock. And I wasn’t surprised that when I rolled down the window, the woman confirmed that this was totally the latter genre of window knock.

“You really need to do something about that person over there! They’re throwing things! It could hurt someone!”

I looked over at the person. I think she had a long blond wig in her hands and was pulling out the strands of hair. I’m pretty sure that’s what she was “throwing.”

I looked at the woman outside my window and I wanted to ask her what she thought I should “do.”

I wanted to point to the markings on the car and ask, “Is she on fire?” Or point to my clerical collar and say, “I’ll pray for her.” Or maybe “Should I pray for you?”

Instead I looked at her and said, “Sure,” except I swear the woman at the window had already turned around to leave, as if we were a recycling bin into which she had just tossed an empty can of LaCroix.

The driver of the vehicle looked at me and said, “Well, I guess we have to call it in.”

Me: “What?! We aren’t calling this in to PD for some Karen.”

Driver of vehicle: “But you said ‘sure.’”

Me: “I said someone would do something, I didn’t say what. I’ll go over there and see if she wants something to eat. That’s something enough to keep anyone from needing to bring the police.”

Driver: “This really needs a social worker.”

Me: “Yup.”

I go over to the woman. She’s definitely not all right. Underdressed for the cold. Rocking back and forth. Definitely sounding like I imagine John the Baptist did after having indigestion from eating locusts.

I ask if I can get her something to eat. She asks for some coffee. I ask her if she has a place to stay. She tells me she lives in a shelter in Williamsburg.

Meanwhile my colleague gets out of the car and tells me to ask her what size shoes she wears. I look down at her feet. She’s wearing threadbare slippers without any socks.

I walk over to the bodega to get some coffee and when I return, my colleague has helped her put on a new pair of shoes and had put her old slippers into the empty shoebox.

I gave her the coffee and could see she was shivering. She seemed to be getting up and I could hear my colleague suggesting she go back to the shelter where it was warmer. She seemed to think that was an okay idea. She wasn’t agitated at all and seemed capable of getting back okay.

Not everything requires a call to 911. Some things can be “solved” with a cup of coffee and/or a spare set of shoes in your trunk. My colleague had gotten them at Payless for a different homeless woman she had seen around. She kept them in the back in case she saw her again, but figured she could get another pair of shoes this week.

It’s easy to lose heart. You know, that passion inside for being human and caring for one another. That thing that might seem a bit goofy or maybe vulnerable. That softer part of you that can easily become jaded or hard.

Well, I drove around today with someone who still has heart. This is someone who keeps spare shoes around in case someone might need them.
This is someone who buys shoes with her government paycheck. Someone who actually does “something.” And I’m not saying who it was because this person wouldn’t want to be known for doing the right thing or perhaps for shopping at Payless. And because there are lots of other people who do the same thing.

Yup. Our city is broken in lots of ways. Something should really be done about that. But today, it was broken in one less way. And I know someone who did do something about that.

Ann Kansfield

Ann Kansfield was voted the inauguralNew York TimesNew Yorker of the Year and is the first female and openly gay FDNY chaplain. A graduate of Columbia University, Kansfield followed the Ivy League crowd to Wall Street until 9/11 happened and she realized she wanted more from life. In addition to her FDNY chaplaincy, she serves as co-pastor of the Greenpoint Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York, with her wife, Rev. Jennifer Aull. 


  • mstair says:

    Beautiful story today, thank you.

    “ … ‘we the people’ is really just each one of us.”

    And, your profound quote here embodies the real problem with our “democracy.” If the majority of “we the people” in that “district” had voted that public nuisance laws be vigorously upheld, her cries would have not been heard and no knock would have been heard upon your window.

    The lesson you offer is a really good one … “we the people,” when understood in the context of being The Body of Christ is really just Our Lord residing and serving through each of us.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Thanks for this. I miss this, as irritating as it often was.

  • Tony Vis says:

    Thank you for a story well told, and for a final paragraph I want to steal, repeat, and take credit for.

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    Thanks, Ann, wonderful to read this again. Grateful for your tendency to be in the right place with the right people at the right time, and be able to tell us about the extraordinary God you serve.

  • Marla says:

    Thank you, Ann, for this story about what it means to be human.

  • Dawn Alpaugh says:

    Thank you Ann for keeping it simple and real….and up to all of us.

  • Mark says:

    Thank you – so many good things going on on this account. And a bonus – the pic of John the Baptist is part of the Eisenheim Altarpiece where the Baptist is pointing directly to the crucified Jesus. Fits right in here.

  • Nolan Palsma says:

    “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” They say ministry in the street is where it is at!

  • David E Stravers says:

    Thanks. Great story. This is what it takes. Thanks for showing mercy. Oh Lord, motivate those of us who don’t drive around in government vehicles to do the same.

  • Gloria McCanna says:

    Thanks for cuttin’ to the chase.

  • Kathy Jo Blaske says:

    Thanks for your chaplaincy to all God’s children.
    Kathy Jo

  • Magnificent. I never fail to be in awe of you and your ministry.

  • David Hoekema says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you — we all need such stories of compassion and integrity!

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