A Priest happened to be going down the same road and when he saw the man he passed by on the other side…. ‘Which of these do you think was the neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ Luke 10:31, 36
One beautiful Saturday morning, we walked to CRAB Park, which is a waterfront park made possible by activists in the neighbourhood who protested for access to beachfront on the East Side of Vancouver (CRAB is an acronym for “Create Real Access to Beach”).
The neighbourhood lacked access to the beach partly because of the railroad tracks that run along the waterfront and also because of the heavy industrial ports in the way. So the city had to build a bridge over the tracks that is quite steep on the south side. One way to traverse this bridge is by stairs which are right next to a ramp made gradual by sharp switchbacks.
My wife walked up the stairs and I pushed the boy in his stroller next to my daughter on her strider bike. At the far end of one switchback sat a young woman, excessively skinny, sitting with legs sprawled. Her flexibility was impressive but lacked the evenness of a yoga practitioner. Her slightly bend knees held up her arms as she slowly ate a spoonful of yogurt. Or I should say, seemed to attempt to eat the yogurt since it took all her concentration to aim the spoon into her mouth. She stared at the yogurt moving it closer to her mouth so slowly that I still had not seen her reach her lips after two switchbacks.
The most unusual thing about this woman to someone who lives in the neighbourhood is that she was alone. But even so, I didn’t find it striking enough to mention her to my wife when we met up again at the top of the bridge.
At the park we played on the swings and slides, ate lunch, and threw around our daughter’s new frisbee. Every once in a while, the 12-story cruise ship docked nearby would blast its horn. About an hour passed and the kids were getting grumpy so we headed back home over the bridge for a nap. I, again, pushed the stroller down the switchbacks as my wife carried our daughter’s bike down the stairs. The woman was still in the same place. A fruit cup sat next to her, unopened, as did another cup of yogurt. Her legs lay sprawled again, but her knees were less bent and her head hung down so that her her obscured her face. She still moved, but even slower.
She wasn’t in our way, so I pushed on by. At the bottom of the bridge, a police car was blocking Alexander Street on the west side. I had seen it earlier and assumed it was protecting a movie shoot in Gas Town. Our house is to the east and so we paid no mind and kept walking.
I don’t know why, but a block away I started thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan. I thought about how I’m in a leadership position at my church, and about how I was scheduled to preach in two weeks, and about how I was teaching a class at a local seminary, preparing people for the ministry, and also about how I live in a neighbourhood where someone is lying on the side of the road.
In the story in the Gospel of Luke, an expert in the law (Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible?) asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus answers with a story about someone lying by the road while a Priest and Levite walk by avoiding contact with the dying person. It was a Samaritan, a heretic from a different neighbourhood, who proved to be the real neighbour. I decided I didn’t want to be the priest. But my kids were getting grumpier. Another problem: I have little way to tell, with my lack of experience with heroin, whether the woman was overdosing or merely very very high.
I told my wife I needed to go back (she, in her defence, still had not seen the woman). I turned around and wondered what I was going to do when I would finally reach the woman. I didn’t really want to involve the police, but I knew they knew more about her chance of survival than I would. As I approached the police car blocking Alexander, a cop on a motorcycle rode up. He was heavy set with a handlebar moustache.
“I don’t want to get her in trouble,” I said, “but there is a woman on the bridge who is very high and I want to make sure she’s okay.”
“Ha! You ever spent much time down here?”
“Well, I live down here. And I see plenty of people on drugs, but this woman’s been there for over an hour and doesn’t seem to be moving.”
Her head was barely visible from the street and it seemed as though the cop thought I was describing her perched on the bridge ready to jump. He eventually agreed to go up and told me not to come with him. I started walking back home, not sure of what else to do.
Another young couple pushing a stroller stopped me to ask me what I was talking about with the cop and they were relieved to find out it wasn’t another potential suicide. They had to explain to me that the police barricade was there because someone was threatening to jump from a building top for the last five hours.
I turned around to see the cop ride away on his motorcycle, indicating to me that the woman who looked half dead on the side of the road mustn’t have been. I felt good that she seemed to be okay, but also unsatisfied for some reason.
The next week, I was walking my kids into Chinatown to run some errands. Just two blocks from our house I saw an older woman holding two bags, standing still and staring northward, a strange, almost half grin upon her face. It seemed less unusual than the woman on the bridge, mainly because she was on her feet. About a half an hour later, we were walking back home and the woman had yet to move. Two paramedics were standing in her line of sight calling her name to her in loud, deliberate syllables.