I was sitting at the Greyhound station in Portland, Oregon, waiting on the bus that would carry me back to Boise. Having grown tired of word searches and crossword puzzles, I turned to my phone and opened the Re-imagining The Examen app I frequently use as a guide for my evening prayer and devotion time.
When I reached the step to offer God gratitude for one or two blessings I had experienced throughout the day, I was all set to journal about the wonderful gathering of Methodist clergy people I was just leaving… but God had something else in store for me.
For the past half hour a group of three young adults sat on the bench across from me. Their language was heavy with profanities. While such words don’t affect me much, I’m also keenly aware that harsh language can and often is an offense to others, for a host of reasons. I wondered to myself if they knew how loud they were, if they had any idea how their voices were echoing in the large waiting area, or if they would care if it were pointed out.
All of a sudden the young couple stood up and began speaking candidly with the other young adult about the benefits of leaving Portland.
“You won’t have to put up with any else’s [stuff].” (I’m aware that some of my readers are troubled by more colorful language, so I’m editing a bit.)
“You’ll have somewhere to be, someone to be with… you won’t be on the streets anymore.”
“No more shelters!”
And then, the young man practically lunged for the still-seated young adult and wrapped her in a big, warm, tight embrace.
It wasn’t the more casual chest bump, slap-a-pal-on-the-back hug you might see on the street. There was a closeness in this hug. There was love. It was the hug a brother might give a sibling about to go off to war or walk some other life-altering path.
That’s when the third young adult became clearly visible to me for the first time and I realized that she was transgender.
The first image you might conjure up in your mind when I say “transwoman” might be a celebrity, like Caitlyn Jenner. But the thing about a homeless transgender woman is that she isn’t anything like a Caitlyn Jenner. One must understand the particular obstacles and hardships that are unique to a homeless transgender person. They don’t have access to the money and health resources someone like Jenner does. They can’t afford surgeries to aid them in their transition. They don’t have access to hormone therapy.
While the Caitlyn Jenners of the world might face persecution and derision, it is the people struggling in places like the streets of Portland that are really living in the constant reality of a dangerous world. There are already too many strikes against them (poverty, homelessness, etc…), and when you add the fact that they are unable to access the resources that might “smooth out” their transition for the gaze of the cisgendered, their very existence becomes something that society tries to ignore or destroy.
The whole dynamic of what was happening just a few feet from me took a completely different turn.
These were no longer foul-mouthed young adults with no awareness of who might be around them, but young people who knew one another from their time spent on the streets and in shelters. Their language was hard because their lives were hard.
And yet, in the midst of all that hardness was this moment of tenderness. A young man hugging a transgender woman he had come to think of as a sister.
The young woman followed suit and embraced her friend, tears in her eyes as she tells her how much she’s going to miss her.
They begin to talk about how they’ll meet again. The young cisgendered couple have gotten an apartment. He’s working now. She’s been approved for Social Security for a disability. When that comes through, they’ll be able to afford to send their friend money for gas or another bus ticket. She can come back to visit. They’ll come to see her in Boise.
They give her what change they have between them so that she can call if anything goes wrong on the trip.
She’s not going to be abandoned.
She’s getting on that bus by herself, but she isn’t alone.
They give her a bag of chips because they don’t have the money to give her for food on the way, but they want her to have something to eat through the night.
Something was said, too soft for me to hear. The young man said, “I’d give it to you, but it’s the only Wizards stuff I have left.” But a moment later, he pulls something out of his pocket and says, “You know what, I want you to have it.”
I found myself filled with gratefulness because this was the sort of love Christ has asked the church to show and I was watching it being lived out loud right in front of me.
Love. Support. Compassion. Giving all you have to someone in need. Easing the pain of another.
And to think, just moments before I had been concerned about their lack of awareness that some of the folks around them might be bothered by their language and now I was wondering if any of those people were seeing the beauty of the moment that was happening. Did any of them have any awareness of the God-moment unfolding in such an unlikely spot. Or were they too busy looking away because it was too much to be confronted with: homelessness, poverty, transitioning genders?
On the bus, she sat in front of me.
It was late, so mostly people just slept and napped on the way… but at one stop she turned to ask me how I was doing and we began a short conversation.
She explained she was from Idaho and never thought she would go back. The complications of her youth as someone assigned male at birth, but struggling with gender dysphoria had created a brokenness in her relationship with her family. She had gone to Portland, looking for acceptance. She found it difficult to navigate and found herself on the streets. And then she discovered how cruel the world can be to someone it doesn’t understand.
Sexual assault and harassment.
The constant attacks from frightened and angry people.
There was no place safe for her.
The streets were scary, but the shelters for a transwoman were terrifying.
And then these friends entered her life. The ones I had watched. And they had encouraged her to contact a sister in Idaho, to try to repair the hurt and brokeness… and much to her joy, her sister begged her to come home and promised to give her a safe space. She even bought the bus ticket. As any big sister would, she promised to destroy anyone who would try to harm her baby sister.
Then, this young woman showed me a ring she said she had bought in Washington State.
“It says ‘courageous’,” she says.
“That’s perfect for you,” I say.
“Have you seen Courageous?” she asks me.
I assure her that I have.
“Have you seen God’s Not Dead?”
And suddenly, I realize that this young, homeless, trans woman who has faced difficulties, hostilities, and dangers I never will was witnessing to me, the professional preacher.
In that moment, in the shadows of a Greyhound bus somewhere in Eastern Oregon, I saw God in the face of another.