She calls to me as I walk past on my way to work, her voice a warbling crack in a dam of tears. I stop, turn, drink in this woman with espresso skin, bent over a walker with a broken wheel, inching toward me. Her story spews, all the reasons I should help her, how she’s just a regular woman and she doesn’t do drugs, but here she is, sleeping out on the streets.

“Look, I have nice clothes, nice shoes, a laptop,” she says, lifting up a black briefcase. The tears are spilling now. “I have heart problems. A pacemaker.” She tugs at her shirt collar, points to a tiny heart inked on the left side of her chest, a tiny bulge beneath her skin. “I can’t breathe very well. I’m trying to get into a shelter, but they’re all full. Can you help me?”

I stare into those stormy eyes and my heart drops. I am but a pebble in the ocean of her need. “I believe you,” I say. “I really wish I could help you, but I have no money.” We hold each other’s gaze in this moment, and I think she believes me, too. She nods her head, tears still streaming down, “I know. At least you care.”

She leans forward now, that slow fall of a soul weighted down, free falling into pain, her nose a dripping faucet. Her shoulders shake, her cries silent. I know this shake well, these tears beyond sound. I lean forward, wrap my arms around her, fresh tears falling. “I do care. That’s why I stopped. I wish I could do more, and I know it probably doesn’t feel this way at all, but I stopped because I know you matter to God. He sees you, and he cares. You are not forgotten.”

Her head lifts and briefly searches my gaze, “I used to think he did.” Her head dips back down and hangs there. The tears continue and I dig through my backpack for napkins.

I stand there for a few minutes, helpless, unable to console. Lord, have mercy.

“I don’t know what else to say,” I confess. “But can I pray for you?” She nods, and I pray, right there on the sidewalk… And I don’t know if it encourages her in any way, but I do it partly for me, because I need to walk away knowing she’s in someone’s hands much more capable than I.

I leave her with a yogurt and banana, my heart falling around my feet as I walk away. I turn back for a quick glance, and she’s moved on to the next person.

Mercy, Lord.

I see her, two more times in the next week, and I argue with myself, whether or not to stop again, pressed for time. What more do I have to give? I walk past her dejected frame, and I pray for her and I pray for me, for this conflicted heart that doesn’t always know what love or mercy looks like. For the tender mercies of Christ to hold and carry us both home.