We have lost many in our Community this year, and each loss has been sad, but the news of Mary’s death crushed me——perhaps for the noble reason that she represents the realities for girls who are born into the culture of generational poverty . . . perhaps for another reason.

Mary was only 19 when we heard from her family that she had died from internal bleeding that was caused by a miscarriage, complicated by late stage Syphilis and AIDS.

She was a tiny little thing, maybe four foot nine with curly blond hair, a fair complexion and grey eyes like the color of the ocean when it’s raining. When Mary first came to Joe’s, she sat at a table on “the front stoop” (that’s what I call the cracked and cigarette butt-littered sidewalk in front of the coffee shop. On a good day, when the weather’s mild, it gets dubbed “The Veranda.”) She smoked her cigarettes and made quiet conversation with the men. I wondered if they knew her, if somebody knew her. Someone told me her name.

The days are busy at Joe’s, always another plate to make for someone or a “counseling” conversation to have (which mostly just means I listen). In the midst of the busyness I began to notice that the crowd around Mary was always men. Especially the men who had recently come out of prison.

One day, Diana came to me and said, “What are we gonna do? Mary is taking guys out back into the trees. I saw her with my own eyes!” Diana leaned in close to me said in a tone that would have been a shout if she hadn’t been trying to whisper, “The guys are paying $5 for a blow job!”

I was angry. Angry at the men who would use Mary that way. Angry at Mary for bringing that kind of business to Joe’s. The girls in the clubs next door offer those services—but not at Joe’s! Some of these guys are fresh out of years in prison! How can they resist that kind of temptation? Impossible. I was mad. I said to Diana, “I’ll talk to her.”

I marched out front to the table where Mary sat smoking, took a seat across from her so I could look her in the eye, and put on what I hoped was my most authoritative face. With some forcefulness, edged by my anger, I said, “I need to talk to you.” She was startled and her grey eyes widened. I had never said more than a hello to her before.

I didn’t wait for a response. I rushed on with what I had to say. “Mary, I know what you have been doing with the guys here, and it has to stop. There will be no more blow jobs. We cannot have the reputation of Joe’s be that we’re a place to get cheap sex.”

With the same wide-eyed, shocked expression, she quietly responded to me, “But I gotta have bus fair, cause I gotta get downtown to see my PO, or they’ll put me in prison.”

The anger just melted out of my shoulders, down my legs and out the bottoms of my feet. I leaned over the table, grabbed Mary’s hand and said, “You need bus fair, you come to me. I will give you $5. You don’t need to do that to get what you need. If you need something, you come to me. Do you understand?” She nodded silently.

I went back inside to answer a phone call, serve another cup of coffee, wipe another table—whatever was next.  A few minutes later, as I pulled the bulging trash bag from the can, I felt an arm reach around my waist and turned to find Mary’s head of blond curls buried in my shoulder. “Thank you,” she whispered.

This was the beginning of my relationship with Little Mary. Over the last two years, she has come and gone from our Community.  She’d hang around for a few days and then disappear for a couple of months.  She had family in another part of the city—sometimes a place to stay there. Sometimes she was in jail. Sometimes when she showed up at Joe’s, she was high. Sometimes she trembled from the need for another fix.

Every time I saw her I made sure she ate something. Especially after she told me that she was pregnant. I played the chubby Italian Mama chasing her kid around with another plate of food. I didn’t know what else to do. I gave her a few rides. I asked her how she was doing. I listened to her problems, but I didn’t know what else to do.

Little Mary was a prostitute—not the street-walker type—well maybe sometimes, but not the leopard skin, mini-skirt and high heels type. For Mary, sex was a currency, as is the case for so many women living in poverty.

A single mother’s car breaks down. She’s got three kids to feed, rent to pay next week, and now no way to get to work. She knows a guy down the street who works on cars . . . but she has no money to pay him.  “What is sex? It’s just something I do with my body,” she tells herself, “It’s not really me. He gets what he wants, and I get what I need.”

Another woman can’t pay her bills. She just keeps getting more and more behind on the rent. They’re going to shut off her electricity if she doesn’t do something. There’s a guy who is interested in her, never mind that he uses drugs once in a while . . and she can probably put up with his surly attitude.  At least he has a job and can help pay the bills. Maybe he’d like to move in with her. It’s not about love. It’s about survival.

I don’t know what it was about Mary, but she captured my heart. I looked for her little blond curly mop every time I drove up to Joe’s. She was so little. So young. So naive. She got herself into so many bad situations being with the wrong people at the wrong time, doing things she shouldn’t. One time she called me from the jail just to let me know where she was. She’d been arrested for stealing a cell phone. I asked her, “Did you do it?” and she quietly responded, “Probly. I was high.”

Both of Mary’s parents are drug addicts. Who knows? Her mother may have been on drugs while she was pregnant with Mary. She didn’t think right. She didn’t seem to understand consequences, “cause and effect.” She didn’t understand who she was—how valuable she was—no matter how many times I told her.

I was standing in the ER next to my dear friend, Chris, holding his hand and restraining my nausea while they reset his broken and dislocated wrist and prepped him for surgery after a motorcycle wreck, when my cell phone rang. It was Crystal, who I knew was at Joe’s waiting with many others for news about Chris’ condition, so I answered. Instead of the question, “How is Chris?” I heard, “Mary is dead.”

“I can’t do this. Not now. It’s too much—too much.” It was another 20 or so hours, after we had the assurance that Chris’ three surgeries had gone well and that he would recover (though it was going to take many months), that I was able to track down what happened to Mary. Internal bleeding.

I didn’t even know she was sick. I didn’t know she had Syphilis. I didn’t know she had AIDS. If she knew, she never told me. If she knew she didn’t have long to live, she never told me. What would I have done if I had known?

I have thought long and hard about this for two weeks. I’ve been carrying it like a weight upon my chest—a weight that at times has pressed upon me the futility of all that we are attempting to do through Joe’s and left me in utter despair. I know that “shoulda, coulda, woulda” is probably not a healthy way to think. I know I did a lot. I know I could have done more. I know the problems it would have caused had I brought her to my home—but maybe I coulda. I know she’d have probably continued in all her same behaviors—but maybe I shoulda. If I’d known she was dying, I woulda.

Life at Joe’s is always busy. There are so many people, so many needs. Most days only have enough hours to meet a few. Often it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the most attention. The familiar adage says, “Can’t see the forest for the trees.” But I’m afraid that Mary was the “tree” that got missed for the “forest.”

So here comes the confession:

Five years ago, I was appalled when the first drug addict that I was attempting to love cussed me out because I did not bring a supply of cigarettes to her in rehab. I still don’t buy cigarettes for people. I just can’t bring myself to contribute to another person’s death—I am pro-life, after all.  But yesterday I handed out my first condoms to a young couple that I know are having sex. He is HIV positive. I’ve fallen so far from the tree of my daddy’s religion, and I know that some of you won’t approve. But this is where I am. I will continue to invite people into the Best Way, the Abundant Life—the Way of Jesus, but I’m not going to watch another person die, if it’s in my power to prevent it.  It’s just too much.