The Friendship Room is on the opposite side of downtown from the police station. They have bicycles as well, bicycles that they had donated and refurbished. They lend them to people, to help them get around, and I assume a percentage of those bicycles don’t come back. They have a free library with two shelves of books you can borrow as you walk by, stocked by donors, and I’m sure most of those books disappear forever when they’re borrowed. They place clothing donations on the porch that get taken away, no questions asked; they leave sandwiches and water on the porch for when they’re not open, and surely those clothes and sandwiches and water sometimes fall into hands that didn’t really need them. Many mornings they open up to homeless people sleeping on their porch. Some of those homeless people got the way they are through absolutely no fault of their own, but some surely have a history of inexcusable bad choices that led them to this point. The Friendship Room takes them in, feeds them and cares for them without asking questions. Sometimes this turns out to be dangerous– sometimes police have had to be called. They’ve been taken advantage of many times, and it will continue to happen. But they keep helping people.
I actually visited the Friendship Room before I went to the police station yesterday. I was heartened to see that the Little Free Grocery cupboard had been generously stocked over the weekend– on Friday, it was empty. Tuesday there was shampoo, soap, toothpaste, all name brands. There were cans of chicken and fish and beans, and there was peanut butter and pasta. I am sure that that food is gone by now, and I’m sure that some of it was taken by a person too lazy to get a job and buy their own groceries, but I am also sure that most of it will go to desperate people who are already working as hard as they can. And regardless, I have hope that kind strangers will keep putting groceries into it, so that anyone who comes by can take some whether they strictly need it or would like to.
After I visited the Friendship Room, I walked down Fourth Street, where there are businesses now. When I moved to Steubenville almost 13 years ago, this area was a dangerous ghost town, and it’s still not anything like a nice place. But little by little, life has been coming back. There’s a deli now with ice cream and sandwiches– I like to buy grapefruit soda there when I can. There’s a coffee shop that smells beautiful. There’s a cute little hippie boutique where you can buy essential oils and vintage sunglasses. This all started happening a little after the Friendship Room was opened downtown.Am I alleging that the Friendship Room caused that to happen? No. I don’t know that it did. But I did witness this correlation: I live in a cruel, nasty, sadistic little town in the Ohio Valley where people are constantly bickering about the best way to punish criminals so that crime will stop and the neighborhoods will not be so wretched. I’ve heard people from all social classes one-upping each other about how ruthless to be with criminals. The rich people at the end of LaBelle want to run them out of the neighborhood. Bus drivers want to refuse addicts Narcan. The last thing anyone wants to offer is mercy. Mercy has been viewed as a defect by all sensible people for as long as I’ve been here. Nothing good happened for the longest time.
Then, into the middle of it, someone went downtown and opened a house that cared for everyone in need, without stopping to ask whether they were worthy. And a little after that, some things started to get better.
I get the impression that we have been looking at things all wrong.
Maybe we’re not supposed to ask how we can inflict violence on people until they stop taking away our bicycles. Maybe we’re supposed to ask how we can show mercy, in places where there is no mercy, so that mercy may come back to us– or, perhaps we’re not even supposed to look that far ahead. Perhaps we’re just supposed to be merciful and leave it at that.
I don’t like that answer, but there it is.
(image via Pixabay)