Note: This post was originally published in 2013 and later made private along with the entire blog it’s a part of. It is currently being shared outside of the rest of the blog site it came from, which remains locked.
Taking a little break from our marriage series, to write about the time I went to the bathroom with a transgendered prostitute in a fast food restaurant in downtown San Francisco. And I got in trouble for it, but didn’t care. This is a bit of a long story.
In the summer of 2003, back when we were just dating, Glenn and I went on a church mission trip to San Francisco. I turned 20 on the trip, and he was almost 25. A year afterwards, we would be married. It hasn’t been until more recent years that I’ve been able to more deeply appreciate the impact of that trip on my life. During the actual trip itself I felt very much like I had no business being there half the time. I probably didn’t. I was kind of a bit of a basket case but that’s not the point.
The ministry we were partnered with was City Ministries International. Though at the time there was no actual “center” that they operated out of in San Francisco.
(I don’t know if the ministry name or how they operate has changed in the 13 years since we went on that trip.)
There was a church building they used to prepare food and have meetings at, but that was it. They operated their various ministries out of trucks.
A food truck to feed the homeless anywhere in the city:
A trailer that converted into a stage where they put on programs for children in low income neighborhoods anywhere in the city:
An empty truck that was used as a salon for washing feet and giving hair cuts anywhere in the city:
It was genius. They explained to us that they chose to operate this way because it gave them better access to the people. Anytime, anywhere, kind of access. It had something to do with how gangs in the city operated, and wouldn’t cross into each others’ territory – so if the group ministered out of a specific community or area, they would only be able to serve that area.
The people could not come to them. They had to go to the people.
Going mobile empowered them to go everywhere and to everyone. It’s an MO for ministry that I’ve never stopped admiring.
We gave away clothing and back packs full of school supplies to children living in what we were told were called project neighborhoods. White girl from Canada had only ever heard of ‘the projects’ in movies. To my own naive shame. Those kids were such good kids and we really enjoyed our time with them. Some of us (cough cough, GLENN!) dressed up as clowns and some did face painting and games.
On one of the days, in one of the neighborhoods we visited, everybody was wearing white. I mean, everybody. And probably their dog. Our leader told us we’d come on a good day because the white meant that the gangs were in agreement about having some kind of peace for that day. We also learned that having Glenn and his brother James with us, was also working in our favor. Because despite the fact that different races tended to live in separate areas, the Samoans apparently live wherever they want and everybody leaves them alone. Glenn and his brother being Filipino, and looking as Pacific Islander as any Samoan, were keeping us out of trouble. Who knew?
We still kind of laugh at the time we were walking down the street holding hands and a couple of guys drove by real slow and starting cat calling my ass. No really. The words out of his mouth were, “DANNNNNNNNG. LOOK AT THAT ASS.” I don’t think anybody would say such a nice thing about my ass anymore so it’s a happy memory and I’m not one bit sorry for saying so.
We slept on converted school buses – guys on one, ladies on another – in a not very safe neighborhood. A nice little family living in their vehicle was parked between our buses that week.
One night, a whole lot of cars pulled up and out of them piled a whole lot of people ready for a fight. I think someone got stabbed. The police eventually came, but in the meantime my pastor’s wife Michelle talked me down from an actual panic attack. Our buses and the family sleeping between us were all ignored, by the grace of God alone.
We manned the food truck and served free, made to order meals to people living on the streets. People who are often served a meal chosen by someone else. What an honor to take their orders and serve their meals. Truly.
We handed out roses to women (and some men!) living and working on the street, praying with any who were gracious enough to allow us. At one point during that particular night I remember a gentleman asking us what we were doing handing out flowers in an open air drug market. I’m not even sure what an open air drug market IS, but I assume he meant that drugs were being bought and sold in that plaza/area totally unbeknownst to us. No matter. Jesus was there too.
We spent an evening in Golden Gate Park, just sort of hanging out, talking and praying with strangers. I sometimes think of a young woman we met who was living there with her cat. She was peaceful, but still waters run deep. Glenn gave the sweater off his back to someone we met who needed it that night. (And the ladies at church thought I fell for him because of his singing voice! Pft.)
We visited Haight House – there were two homes I think, one for men and one for women. I don’t remember which we were at but the residents from both came and we had a BBQ. The homes were part of a transitional program for recovering addicts and people living and working on the street. I was humbled to share some of my story of my parents being teen/young parents, my mom leaving my dad because of his drinking when I was 8, their separation, and how our family came through it and how eventually I found Jesus through it as a teenager. Afterwards, an older gentleman came up to me to chat. I had given an account of my Dad driving to Cranbrook from Calgary every other weekend or so while he and my mom were separated, and how it would later be a stepping stone to my faith in how God also is a Father who comes to get His children. He cried and told me that his wife had left 20 years or more ago because of his drinking, but that he’d not gone after his daughter and always wondered if she would have wanted him to or if it would have made a difference. I told him it would. I don’t think I’ll ever know what came of that man or his daughter, but I’ve prayed for him and for her.
Not all dads go to get their kids. But Abba Father does.
The whole trip was just meeting person after person who was showing ME Jesus, not the other way around. And good thing because I wasn’t at all sure that I had much to offer anybody anyway.
But the person who showed me Jesus the most clearly was a transgendered (male to female) prostitute, who was gracious enough to share her bathroom stall with me before my bladder burst in the middle of a burger joint. I’m getting ahead of myself.
We spent time downtown one night doing the same thing we’d done that week – talking, praying, sharing sandwiches and juice we’d made, some washing feet and cutting hair, and just meeting who we would meet. Well that night I was the only girl in a group of guys and I had to go pee. Badly. Our leaders had us under instruction to not go anywhere alone. Being the only girl in the group I had to use the bathroom alone, obviously. Too bad for the rules, my bladder wasn’t playing along.
So I go into this fast food place while the guys wait outside. I grab the door and it won’t open. I look and you had to PAY to use the bathroom. Like a quarter or something, but I had no coins. As I’m turning to go get a coin before I pee my pants, the door opens. I naturally grab it, go in and thank whomever opened it for me. And then I realize that the bathroom only has one toilet, that isn’t enclosed. It’s a one stall kind of deal. Now, there WAS a partition between the stall and the sink. But the other person in there with me was very clearly a biological male getting dressed up for a night of work as a female sex worker. This was a first for me. She wasn’t looking for conversation and was giving off a ‘please leave me alone’ vibe. I had to go pee. So I did. Open stall and everything. Gender and sexuality aside, I had to pee. NOW.
And the funny thing was, I felt bad for intruding on the person who was already in there. I never once felt that *I* wasn’t safe. She wasn’t intruding on my right to pee by being in there. She could have not opened the door and not opened herself up to whoever might freak out or judge her on the other side. But she did. I’m making some assumptions here, I know. Maybe she wasn’t a prostitute. That was not a judgment of her work but an observation made based on the area we were in and the whole set up going on in the bathroom before me. Looking around that bathroom I also kind of assumed that with the whole male to female thing happening before my eyes, that this person was not going to be sexually interested in anything I had to offer. I’m not sure how else to put that and I hope I’m saying it in a respectful way.
She was kind to me. That was all that mattered in that moment. She was the most kind person I encountered the entire trip.
(Note: I have no idea which gender this individual would have preferred to be identified with, but I assume the female one based on the bathroom she chose. So I’m going with that.)
When I got back to my group, the leaders were not impressed. If I remember right, it was just Glenn, Dustin and I from our church and a whole bunch of other guys I didn’t know. The guys leading us that night weren’t the leaders from City Ministry International – I want to make that clear because I don’t want to make that ministry look bad here. There were lots of different people/groups there helping out that night and I don’t know who the leaders of my group were representing.
So I got back from my unsanctioned potty break and the leaders made it clear we should all stick together and then made us all pray together, spouting off some passive aggressive, manipulative prayer about everyone doing things together and God dealing with the hearts of those who weren’t submitting. It was truly awful.
I was also ticked. If they were that concerned for my safety they would have come into the restaurant and waited outside the bathroom for me, not stood outside watching all the things I was doing wrong on my own so they could hold it against me later. Or found me a super safe place to pee. Or something. It’s a real good thing they didn’t know what the set up inside that bathroom was like or they might have crucified me on the spot.
Oh boy was I mad. When I’m mad and there’s nothing I can do about it, I cry. So I cried. One of them put their hands on my shoulders to pray for me so they all prayed for me. First off, don’t touch me. Seriously. If we could extend the courtesy of asking first to those we were meeting with at random on the street, we could extend it to each other. I don’t like being touched. I don’t do hugs and I don’t do hands-on prayer without being asked. Just, don’t. I wanted out of there.
I wanted back in the bathroom with the prostitute where it was safe.
Luckily our evening was coming to a close by then and we were shortly on our way back to meet up with the other groups. I was so upset I could not stop crying for a long time that night. I couldn’t even explain myself . I felt trapped and wanted to go home. I felt bullied in a way I couldn’t verbalize, which is an awfully rare thing for me. It was a yucky feeling. Glenn and Dustin both swept in and almost guarded me against those men, and despite Dustin being one of the youth on the trip I think I’d call him protective right along with Glenn. I would have lost my crap entirely if they hadn’t been there.
These days, if you ask me whether I’d rather share bathroom space with a transgendered person, or a prostitute, or a ministry leader, I’m probably going to pick the transgendered person or the prostitute. Without question. I’d consider peeing my pants depending on who the ministry leader was.
No offense to the leaders (I am one!), but people who are marginalized want as much trouble as I do, which is none. And my big mouth gets me in trouble with leaders, a lot, so I tend to keep it shut inside of bathrooms and out.
Church is hard for a lot of people. Sometimes bathrooms and open air drug markets are safer than houses of worship. And that is really something that I wrestle with as the wife of a church worship leader and a woman who intends to go to seminary if and when that path is open for me. Maybe Glenn and I need to convert a truck and just go bring worship and the Word of God to people instead planting ourselves in one place. We are both just now coming to terms with being restless. I joked the other day about starting a food truck: we serve tacos and Jesus. It was partly not a joke.
I think of the person who shared her bathroom with me and pray for her sometimes. All it took was 2 wordless minutes in a bathroom and she has never left me. There was nothing I could do for her in return and it bothered me for a long time. I’ve prayed for her safety and that she would know she is loved. Now that the issue of transgendered people and bathrooms has completely blown up in our culture, I just think of that woman who was kind to me and I shake my head on her behalf. I don’t have numbers but I’d be willing to bet that more people have been abused in churches than in bathrooms. And if we can’t be gracious about letting people pee, we have no business expecting them to want to share a pew with us.
So take me to the damn bathroom. Then we can talk about church.
*note: my descriptions of the places and people we saw while in San Fran are based on a short week there 13 years ago. If I’m using the wrong words or have details wrong, that’s entirely not intentional and I’m open to correcting them for accuracy and respect towards individuals involved.
copyright (c) 2013 Jenna Pelias // all rights reserved
copyright (c) 2016 Jenna Pelias// all rights reserved