Windows. We have windows everywhere. In our homes, stores, cars, buildings, our souls. Windows allow us to see in, see out, and reflect. We see ourselves, others, creation.
This Autumn, I began a new job at the San Francisco SPCA, thanks to my daughter who also works at the SF SPCA as a Vet Tech. First things first – I love this job! As I pursue my Doctor of Ministry with a concentration in restorative justice and domestic violence advocacy, which includes me tutoring women in prison every week, and as I continue my work as an interfaith activist in this religiously and politically charged environment we are in right now, I wanted a job I had never done before, and more, a job that would bring me joy. So, I was offered and accepted a job doing adoptions at the SF SPCA – not just at the adoption center, but at Macy’s.
For the past 30 years, the SF SPCA has adopted out animals at several department stores during the holiday season in San Francisco, with Macy’s being their primary partnership for over the last decade. Known as Holiday Windows, every year, over 200 kittens and puppies are adopted out of the Macy’s windows alone, bringing happiness and a lot fur to people’s homes.
I love being a part of this event. Taking care of more than a dozen kittens and several puppies a day isn’t always easy, but, it makes me smile. All the time. And, it’s difficult to explain the feeling when you see people outside who walk up to the windows and see kittens and puppies who are up for adoption. They melt, they smile, they ask questions, and they appreciate the work the SF SPCA is doing.
For me, this job has an even deeper meaning. As a native to the Bay Area, being born in San Francisco, I have a different history with the Macy’s windows, that goes back to when I was a kid. Whenever I went to the City with my Mom, I couldn’t wait to hang out under the Macy’s window with a homeless man named John, and his dog Snoopy.
I have written about John before. Anyone who was familiar to Macy’s and Union Square in the 1970’s and 1980’s, knew John. Depending on how tolerant Macy’s was, would depend on which window John was allowed to live under. But you would always find him, with his house all set-up, and his trusted, furry companion at his side.
I loved those moments of visiting with John. I loved sitting with him. He smelled. Snoopy smelled, and as he would lay his head on my lap, I would pet his matted fur and he would fall asleep. John’s missing teeth would catch me staring and his bright eyes had me wondering. Who was this man with the Irish accent and how did he get here? Why did he live under this window? Was he cold at night? I remember, as a little girl in a dress, having to scratch my legs and I felt a bit gross, because his wool blanket that he had laid down for me to sit on, was raggedy and sometimes wet. The point was though, is that he would lay down the blanket for me, like I was a special guest in his home.
Sometimes as we were sitting there, a Macy’s employee would step into the window to change the display. Some would wave at John and say “Hello,” others would look with bewilderment at me and I’m sure wonder why I was sitting there. I am sure my mother was judged too. I would catch women walking by looking at her as if to say, WHAT ARE YOU DOING? Yet, what they didn’t get, was what I was understanding and learning in those moments. Those moments left me with the single most important trait to have in this world – compassion. For all living beings. And for that, I am thankful.
I was also struck sometimes by John’s clothing being so worn, yet in the window above him, men’s suits would call out to those who could afford it. As if to tease John and say – You can live out there and look at me, even live under me, but, you’ll never own or wear me. The thing is, John didn’t care. At least, he didn’t seem to. He didn’t seem to want more than what he had. He was resolved to his current status in life. John knew everyone. And everyone knew John. People would walk by, say hello, and call him by name. And he did the same. He was polite, kind, and dignified.
Those moments with John were absolutely paramount to who I am today. Those moments were moments of clarity of the human condition in its worst and best form. When I think back to John now as an adult woman, I realize that any one of us can be like John. Any one of us could be homeless. John was an example to me as to how we can, even in what some would see as the worst living circumstances, show grace and love. This time with John in the Macy’s window illustrated life to me, in its utmost and precious form.
And now, over 40 years later, I am back in the Macy’s windows. I think of John every day that I walk up to Macy’s and the SF SPCA desk to start my shift. When I go outside to peer through the windows and the animals, and as I adopt out animals to loving homes, I fondly think of Snoopy, especially. John loved that dog, more than life itself. Snoopy was a Benji look-a-like, and he loved John and was devoted. The parallel to adopting out animals from a Macy’s window, to remembering Snoopy who lived under and outside of a Macy’s window, is one I still cannot really articulate. It isn’t a bad thing. It just makes me wonder and question and ponder. Everything.
What I ultimately walk away with from all of this is that we are all God’s creation. All the beautiful animals I work for every day. All my SF SPCA co-workers who care about the welfare of animals. All the people who come up to the windows in awe. All the adopters. All the homeless folks who are fighting their battles. John and Snoopy. The women I tutor in prison. The domestic violence victims I encounter in my work. My colleagues and friends of different religions around the world that are facing conflict and strife. Strangers. My mom. My daughter. Me. We’re all reflected in these windows. The literal windows and the figurative windows. We see each other through lenses and we approach cautiously. Treading heavily, or lightly. We live. We hate. We love. We struggle.
When I applied to this job I didn’t realize how it would bring me full circle until a few weeks in. But, it has. How divine for me to return to the Macy’s windows in this capacity, with such fond memories of a man who helped me understand life so much more than any book or classroom ever could. And then working with animals now too – animals that help me see life with such fragility, unconditional love, and trust. The reality is, it is people who help us feel human and understand humanity in its most raw form. And it is the animals that teach us how beautiful we can be, we are, and how much we need each other. All life is sacred. All life is holy.
Windows. We have windows everywhere. In our homes, stores, cars, buildings, our souls. Windows allow us to see in, see out, and reflect. They give us permission to see a small glimpse of ourselves, of others, of all that God is capable of. There isn’t a single living being on the planet that isn’t part of God’s creation. How blessed are we that we have windows to help us see. How blessed am I to witness life in a window. Again.
Karen Leslie Hernandez is a theologian and interfaith activist. With a focus in Christian-Muslim Understanding, as well as religious fundamentalism and extremism, Karen is the only theologian who is a Latina and a United Methodist, doing this type of theological work in the US. She has published with several media outlets including the Women’s United Nations Report Network, The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue/Studies, State of Formation, and she was the only Christian to publish an ongoing Op-Ed Column with OnIslam out of Cairo, Egypt. Karen also has a featured chapter in Qasim Rashid’s latest book, Talk to Me: Changing the Narrative on Race, Religion & Education. Karen lectures and teaches, with her last teaching gig at Meadville Lombard Theological School, where she taught an Interfaith Dialogue workshop to students from six countries. Karen is a proud Wellesley College alumnae, has two Theological master’s degrees from both Andover Newton Theological School and Boston University School of Theology, and she is currently pursuing her Doctor of Ministry at Claremont School Theology. Karen lives in San Francisco, is an Ambassador with the Parliament of the World’s Religions, tutors women who are incarcerated, and she is a Domestic Violence Advocate.