BY JEFF DEENEY “Today I saw…”is a series of nonfiction shorts based on my experiences as a caseworker serving formerly homeless families now living in North and West Philadelphia. I decided not long after starting the job that I was seeing so many fascinating and disturbing things in the city’s poorest neighborhoods that I needed to start cataloging them. I hope this bi-weekly column serves as a record of a side of the city that many Philadelphians don’t come in contact with on a daily basis. I want to capture moments not frequently covered by the local media, which tends to only cover the most fantastically violent or sordid aspects of life there.
TODAY I SAW the Reverend. She she was working at the computer on her desk in the basement of the old AME church on North 7th Street. The Reverend is a little woman with a big presence; her eyes are fiercely bright and clear, and her voice is still strong enough to fill the sanctuary to the rafters with the The Word during services despite her advanced age. She has a wide smile that brims with sincerity and silver hair that shines like freshly polished metal and falls about her shoulders in soft waves. It’s the unrepentantly natural hair of a woman who is completely comfortable with who she is and this self-assurance radiates from the Reverend like summer heat shimmering over the sidewalk. She has unblemished brown skin without a wrinkle, even around the eyes. She’s gorgeous, really; it’s hard to not be mesmerized by her when you’re standing so close; she holds your hand firmly while welcoming you to the church and asking you how you are feeling today.
There are always women around the Reverend, attending to her needs and hanging on her every word. She’s surrounded by ex-convicts, former prostitutes, recovering addicts; they gravitate towards her, pulled by her aura of strong faith that conveys a sense of safe harbor and the hope for change and grace. There are also the working mothers dropping by on their lunch breaks and the neighborhood men, those hulking pillars of community stability, who come with them to get that little midday boost of strength that keeps their days full of lightness and their spirits high.
When you talk to the Reverend, God is always the third person in the room. To the Reverend, God is tangible, his presence palpable and she speaks of him with the matter of fact tone most people reserve for material objects like tables and chairs. When speaking about her recently-ill husband, who also leads Sunday sermons at the church, God is at the center of his miraculous recovery. Her husband suffered kidney failure that was complicated by his overall frailty and he somehow pulled through despite doctors deeming recovery improbable. “You know I didn’t worry even a little bit,” the Reverend says. “Because you know that I know God,” she continues, like he’s right there next to me. “That’s right,” chimes one of the women in the room. “God wasn’t about to let his good brother go,” the Reverend says, “not yet, not while there’s so much work to be done around here. God told me not to trouble myself; he said that there are many days left for my husband in this world.”
Whenever someone leaves the Reverend’s presence she gives them a blessing and they bless her back. As I turn to leave she looks me in the eye and says, “Bless you,” and I find myself saying it back to her despite the fact that I don’t even go to church.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer who has contributed to the City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture. He is also a caseworker with a nonprofit housing program that serves homeless families.
[Photo by Rachael Shirley]