I had wanted to be a part of this mission for a long time, but for very complex reasons, I was never invited to do so. When Jack, Kelly Sue’s right hand man, was diagnosed with cancer and was too ill to continue, I finally got the invitation. Kelly Sue knew of my eagerness and she was worried it would somehow rub these people the wrong way.
These people were invisible to most of society, maybe circumstances had driven them there, but they joined this society by invitation and by choice. An elaborate society of people who abided by their own laws and their own way of life, which became a hidden culture within a culture of society that would judge them for their failures and their present circumstances, and thus they kept themselves invisible to most of the outside world.
We drove the expressway toward the downtown area, then we navigated some back streets, winding ourselves towards the river. Then she slowed the vehicle down and made a right turn, jumping the curve and following a somewhat muddy path between a bunch of shrubs that were clawing the paint off of Kelly Sue’s vehicle. We almost got stuck in the mud twice—but she somehow managed to keep us moving, and finally she stopped the car. The area seemed void of people completely, and I wondered if these people actually existed.
Kelly Sue looked in her rearview mirror then announced, “Jorge is approaching. I’ll get out first.” She handed me the keys. “In three minutes, open the trunk and bring me the first bag. Remember, No eye contact.”
In the moment, I was nervous and curious. And yet I knew this society of people didn’t trust anyone but their own. I waited exactly three minutes, opened my door, kept my eyes down and made my way around to the trunk. I pulled out the first bag of food and carried it to Kelly Sue, who met me half way. She walked the bag to Jorge who turned and handed it to someone I did not dare look at. I just kept my eyes down. Next I pulled out a case of water, and we repeated the same. Then a few bags of blankets, coats, shoes.
When I was done. I shut the trunk door and Kelly Sue called me over. Careful not to look at Jorge, I walked over. Surprisingly, Kelly Sue introduced me to Jorge. I gave him a warm smile and a handshake, but not a lot of eye contact. Kelly Sue explained, “She will be helping me now. Jack is not doing so well. She may be coming with me for some time, maybe indefinitely.”
Jorge did a surprising thing, he invited Kelly Sue and me to come back to see their community. We must have walked a half mile, down the muddy banks, then we weaved ourselves back into the shrubs. At first I didn’t even realize I was in the middle of their colony—but when I finally opened my eyes—the “debris” I thought was just piled up between the shrubs, were actually make shift structures. And each structure was spaced out into somewhat even areas. Through quick glances, I seen little eyes peering out my direction—more so I could feel them. It wasn’t an uneasy feeling I had but more of a curiosity. Still, I kept my eyes forward and realized we were approaching the central building of their village.
We followed Jorge into the central building—which was comprised of cardboard and tarps. Inside he invited us to sit, and I followed Kelly Sue’s lead and sat on the ground. He explained we were in their community center—this was the building they distributed the food, clothing, and necessities we brought them. It was also where they held court, called the monthly village meetings, taught school, celebrated their own holidays, and took refuge during major storms, as none of the individual homes could usually withstand such systems.
Jorge explained that each member of the society worked, taught their young, and contributed to the society as a whole. This was the price for residency. The citizens were required to abide by the laws of the village and there were consequences for breaking the laws, including jail time and exile. He then took us around and introduced us to several people who lived there. I noticed people who were very ordinary, mostly happy, and most of all, appreciative.
While this community of homeless people, were self governing and did not trust the outside world, they were not completely self-sufficient. They allowed me to see a glimpse of their society only this one time, because they knew that Jack would probably never come back. They depended on the work of this mission, but they would cut off its support if they felt that trust was ever betrayed. My glimpse into their world was not only an eye opener for me but also a test, to see if they trusted me.
Perhaps I passed, because every Saturday for the next three years, Kelly Sue and I brought them the bags and boxes of food, clothing, and necessities they needed. Jorge was always there to greet us with a hug and a smile, thanking us for our relentless efforts. It was not until I had gotten pregnant with my last child and was eight and half months along that I had to step aside. My last Saturday, Jorge and several of the ladies met us and after we handed them their bags and boxes, they presented me with a cardboard cradle. It was the most precious baby gift I was ever given.
It has been about 6 years now since I’ve been down to the river. Kelly Sue is still going down there every Saturday, taking many needed donations. It is this time of year, I try to get the word out to my friends and family to donate to the mission—clothes, shoes, food, blankets, coats, and cases of water. I think about these invisible people often—and I remember them in my prayers. If I am ever asked to rejoin Kelly Sue—I plan to step up in a heartbeat.
The following was a fictional take on a true story of a group of “invisible” homeless people who really do live by the river. Since the holiday season is upon us, remember that there are others in need. You may not ever see them—but what you contribute will matter. Happy Holidays!