Continuing our Advent series, this week features Damian Torres-Botello, SJ:
At Present, We Wait
We’re standing. Our standing is more…waiting. It’s been a little while. We’re outside Circle K. Cars are being filled with gas. People go inside empty handed and come out with drinks or chips or lottery tickets. The fluorescent lights of the convenience store act like a moon in the late night. I’m with Lisa, a volunteer, same as me. She’s a petite woman, long brown hair, tired eyes underneath thinly rimmed glasses. Public spots like this Circle K are neutral, away from the bars a few blocks north.
A man approaches. He seems sober in walk but smells drunk when he talks. “What are these crosses you wear?” He points at the white badge clipped to our clothes. He’s correct, there is a large crucifix.
“Out here are guys engaged in survival prostitution.” Lisa’s been a volunteer longer than me so she has this explanation down perfectly. “For these guys, prostitution isn’t a career as much as it is a way to make it to the next day.”
“You mean to say dudes…” He goes on and on. Lisa listens intently. I’m looking around to see if any of the guys are out and about. That’s how we refer to them, “the guys.”
“And by surviving I mean prostituting for shelter, food, warmth, a fix for their addictions…” Lisa’s articulating what we do perfectly, and he is beginning to look disinterested. “They’re overlooked, and we walk this neighborhood for the purpose of building trust and friendship, hopefully to help them get off the street.”
The gentleman moves on. And so do we. We head towards 7-11; the convenience of being near a convenience store, food and beverage always at the ready. Lisa carries cash for sandwiches and coffee in case someone needs a meal. I glance at my phone – 12:35am. Two hours have passed, two more to go.
It’s quiet tonight. This is Boystown, a predominately gay neighborhood in Chicago. Most nights it’s busy. Bars bursting from the doors with lines upon clusters of patrons and smokers and intoxicated personalities. Tonight is Sunday, though. Very few people are around and their enthusiasm more tame — tomorrow the work week begins again.
From a corner bar an amazing laugh cuts through the subdued atmosphere. Leaves seem to swirl everywhere. I notice two men walking hand in hand. That’s real nice, I say to myself, a couple out on a late night stroll. I remark on the wind and the chill in the air. Lisa’s properly dressed for the autumn gusts with her heavy coat. I shiver in my long sleeved shirt and sweater vest.
After a few minutes at 7-11 we walk again. Many of the guys prostitute “on the down low” — a life lived in secret. We respect their anonymity. We don’t speak with them unless they talk to us first. It’s out of respect that we do this. And sometimes we pass two or three guys, but not tonight. Lisa and I remain two volunteers, waiting.
It’s almost 2:30am. We gather back at the Community Christian Church where a team of us met to begin the night. This time we will debrief and share who we saw or spoke with. The other teams recognized a couple of guys but were not invited into conversation. Lisa and I saw no one. But it’s not about impact or numbers or making a difference. It’s about being available, being present in the world these men live in.
I’m discovering presence is an act of waiting. Everyday waiting — in a line, for the bus, for a friend to pick you up — can be filled with something to pass the time. My iPhone helps me wait very well, even if I am waiting with a friend. But what Lisa and I are doing I’m calling present-waiting, like what I do at Advent. And Advent is not typical waiting.
Present-waiting — Advent — is not about passing time but being present to it. Lisa and I know for whom and why we are waiting. Our purpose is focused, paired with anticipation. We are patient. We are here for the guys even if the guys are not.
I’m waiting on the platform for the train to take me home. I notice one of the guys I always speak with on Sundays. He’s on the other side across the tracks. He looks up from the ground and spots me. He waves and smiles. I return his greeting. He yells towards me over the sound of an approaching train, “Thanks for waving at me — I appreciate it!”
The train on his side stops, picks him up, and departs towards wherever it goes. I pray it’s not where I feel he’s going, but I’m sure it is. The thought breaks my heart. At 2:53am my waiting is done. And I am present to pray. So I do just that. Right here, on the platform.