The February 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Top 20 Meanest Cities in U.S.

Hate Crimes in Fort Lauderdale

Classism in the Stacks: Libraries and Poor People

Housing Authority's Kafka-Style Interrogation

Bay Area Transit: Separate and Unequal

Lawsuit on Behalf of East Bay Bus Riders

MLK Would Tell Congress to Value Workers

Art, Music for Homeless Kids

Mercy: A Story

The Birdman of Berkeley

Resisting Unjust Corporate Power

President Bush Speaks His Mind

Street Spirit Poetry


January 2006

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005

Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.


There should be more people like Mercy in the world, people you know will be there for you if you are in need and afraid.

Story by Joan Clair

"Dumpster Dive." Art by Jonathan Burstein. In Jonathan Burstein's painting, an angel appears at a trash bin in San Francisco's Mission District.

I had a few days off from work for the holidays and was hoping I could at least take a "vacation" at home, but things hadn't worked out that way. So I grabbed a magazine I hadn't read and stopped by a small, nondescript restaurant, which nevertheless played peaceful music, for a cup of tea. I thought I'd have a few quiet moments to myself when I heard a woman at the table next to mine saying, "Mercy isn't afraid of poverty, pain or homelessness."

I looked over at the next table, thinking two people must be having a conversation, but there was only one person sitting at the table next to mine. She looked as if she were in her 70s, maybe 10 to 15 years older than myself. She was a large woman with grey hair cut in a style resembling mine and a round face like my own.

She had a cup of tea on her table also, and if I wasn't mistaken, her remark had been addressed to me, as she was facing in my direction. I looked at the other table next to mine to make sure she wasn't talking to someone there. We were the only two on our side of the restaurant. So I said, "Someone you know?"

"I've met her a few times," the woman said. "She has a large house, but she doesn't think of it as hers. She takes in people who are homeless. She has three homeless people living with her now."

"Well whose house does she think it is?" I asked, a little irritated. I found the story interesting, if a bit unreal, and I wanted to be alone with my tea and my magazine. It had been raining all week, and it was a sunless day and cold. The view from the restaurant was not uplifting - a few businesses and a few thin trees moving in the wind, a few pedestrians and cars on the usually busy street.

"It's not that complicated," the woman said, looking at me with a hint of humor as if she picked up on my conflict. "She just feels lucky that she has a large house with plenty of room and believes in sharing her house with those less fortunate."

"How does she decide who comes and lives with her?" I asked. "How does she find these people?" I had a hard time believing this woman; my tea was cooling, and I like my tea hot. I took a sip of it, and for the first time took a harder look at the woman. Usually I don't pay attention to what people are wearing, but I noticed the woman was wearing an unusual wooden cross around her neck. The two arms of the cross were equal in length, rather than the vertical arm being longer than the horizontal one, and there was a fleur-de-lis where the two arms intersected.

The woman ignored my stare and continued. "It's not as if Mercy is out there looking for people. The way she puts it, she responds to whatever comes her way."

"And what if 'whatever comes her way' doesn't fit into her schedule," I said impatiently. "What if 'whatever comes her way' interferes with a date to go to the art museum or a relative who's coming over for dinner? What if 'whatever comes her way' makes it impossible for her to get to work on time?"

The woman gave me a penetrating look as if she would like her response to be remembered. "Mercy's retired, but when she was working she did almost lose a job," she replied. "But Mercy has never honored appointments, schedules, and dates in a way that supercedes mercy."

"Oh," I said, chuckling at the play on Mercy's name. "So, she's some kind of a saint, then, you believe?" Again, I felt a tinge of annoyance. I had known one or two people I thought were saintly until I discovered how convenient schedules and "important engagements" are to shut out the pain and suffering of others.

The woman took another sip from her tea. Her tea must be getting cooler also, I thought, but that didn't seem to bother her at all. "Not a saint, just an ordinary woman. Mercy is as ordinary as anyone you'll ever meet. You'd never recognize her or see her as anyone special, and she doesn't see herself that way."

"Does she think of herself as a Christian?" I asked, looking meaningfully at the woman's cross. The woman ignored my look and said, "She doesn't go to church and doesn't call herself a Christian."

"Then what makes her the way she is," I asked in frustration, "if it's not some ideal she's trying to live up to that makes her feel good about herself?"

The woman looked at me patiently. "As I said before, it's just that Mercy is not afraid of poverty, pain or homelessness. She's not afraid of death either. She took in a woman who was dying of cancer who had no medical insurance."

I looked around the restaurant hoping no one was overhearing our conversation. No one had come to sit at a table on our side of the restaurant, and the waitress was nowhere in sight. Mercy seemed too good to be true, but I said, as if I were talking to myself, "She's not afraid of poverty, pain and homelessness. I guess poverty, pain and homelessness are not afraid of her. "

"That's right." The woman gave me a smile for the first time. I noticed her front upper teeth were yellow and uneven. But that did not seem to matter. The smile that came through warmed me more than the tea. I felt my skepticism returning.

"And if 'whatever comes her way' is a dog or cat, will she take it in?" My question was a challenge. I was accustomed to the discrepancy between care for humans and care for animals. If a barrier was lifted for humans, it was closed for animals. Occasionally, it was the other way around.

"She must have six or seven cats and several dogs living with her," the woman replied.
"And how do the people living with her feel about that?" I asked. I tried to visualize myself in a home with six cats and several dogs.

"Most of them accept it, and one even likes it," she replied. "There's a woman who lives with Mercy whose cat died shortly before she moved in. She buried the cat in a park they used to hang out in together. Now she takes a bus to the park every day to visit the cat's grave."

The part of me that has never felt totally under control regarding my own expenditures kicked in. "She takes a bus to the park every day with the little money she has to visit the grave of a dead cat?"

The woman looked at me with compassion. "Greyfriars Bobby was a dog who slept on the grave of his companion Auld Jock, a farmer's shepherd, after he died. Bobby slept there every night until he himself passed on."

"I think I've heard of him," I said. "Didn't they put up a statue for the dog at the graveyard's gate? It's over in Scotland somewhere, or was it England?"

"Scotland," the woman replied. "Edinburgh. Yes they did put up a statue for Bobby. Why can't it be the other way around? Love doesn't say good-bye."

"Yes, but they'll never put up a statue for the woman who was homeless because of her devotion to her cat," I said somewhat cynically, thinking the woman was lucky to even be able to dig a grave for her cat in a park without being harassed.

"One doesn't need a statue," the woman said.

I wondered if our conversation was coming to an end, thinking of the many things I had to do at home.

"Well, thank you for sharing your story about Mercy," I said, trying to be polite, still grieving a bit for the moments I had missed to be alone with my magazine and tea. "There should be more people like Mercy in the world, people you know will be there for you if you are in need and afraid."

"You don't have to be afraid of Mercy," the woman said. "Mercy is not afraid of you."
I noticed she was getting up to leave, and out of curiosity, more than politeness, I asked, "By the way, what is your name?"

She looked at me, and there was humor in her expression. A radiant light came from her face which seemed to shatter the coldness of the day. "Mercy," she said. "Mercy is my name." And leaving a few coins for her tea on her table, she left before I could say good-bye.

The Quality of Mercy

Quotations about mercy and kindness

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."
Matthew 5:7

"The just is close to the people's heart, but the merciful is close to the heart of God."
Kahlil Gibran, Spiritual Sayings of Kahlil Gibran

The quality of mercy is not strain'd;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless'd;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

Mercy is better than justice.
Vauvenargues, Reflections and Maxims

The merciful man does good to his own soul.
Proverbs 11:17

Whoever is kind to God's creatures, God is kind to him.
Muhammad, The Sayings of Muhammad, 252

Shall we make a new rule of life from tonight: always to try to be a little kinder?
J.M. Barrie, The Little White Bird

Deeds of kindness are equal in weight to all the commandments.
Talmud, The Talmudic Anthology, 177

The more you join with people in their joys and their sorrows, the more nearer and dearer they come to be to you.
Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer Abroad

I was lying in my room
And the news came on TV;
A lot of people out there hurting
And it really scares me.

I was standing in a bar and
Watching all the people there
All the loneliness in this world,
Well, it's just not fair.

Love and mercy,
That's what you need tonight
So love and mercy
To you and your friends tonight

Brian Wilson, "Love and Mercy"

1515 Webster St,#303
Oakland, CA 94612Phone: (510) 238-8080, ext. 303

E-mail: Spirit

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