Still not the what-to-do-about blight/Part II post (I’m still thinking), but an encounter from a while back. I’ve noted it as as Part I. That’s not because I have an immediate sequel in mind, but because there are many situations where mercy, justice, and moral ambiguity (and sometimes parking lots) intersect. It will come up again.
I attend Sunday worship in a busy, diverse urban neighborhood. One warm day, my daughter and I were walking across the parking lot at church after the early service, talking about a quick stop at the grocery store on our way home. We greeted the crew of regulars who sit, smoke, and talk on a short flowerbed wall between the two doors that most people use to enter the education building. I nodded to a short white woman in overall shorts talking on her cell phone after we turned the corner. We were about 10 feet from our car when I heard the words behind me “Hey, let me call you back in a minute.”
I knew what was coming.
“Hey, excuse me.”
We turn to face the woman in the overalls coming toward us. I’m only 5’2”, but I’ve got a good 3+ inches on her. I take her to be just few years older than me, but she has the familiar look of hard living. She reaches us and says “I get my food stamps on Thursday, but I was wondering if you would help me with some groceries or something until then.”
(that’s what I say on the inside.)
On the outside, I look politely at her, but pause before replying. She keeps talking – “I’ve gotten vouchers here before. I know Rev. Sally. Can you help me just until Thursday? I can’t come during the week because I’m working. I work 7-3:30 and I live over there in housing at the Neighborhood House just over there and I used to have a car but it quit working and you don’t know anybody that has a car I could pay on a little at a time, do you? They take us to the store and I’ll have my food stamps on Thursday and I work during the day, but I’m looking for an evening job. Do you know anybody looking to hire for the evenings? Just right there at the Village Market so I’ll have something to eat until I get my food stamps. ”
She looks at me. My 13-year-old looks at me.
I start with the easy route – “I don’t actually work here. I just come for church. I don’t know anything about the vouchers.”
She looks at me. My 13-year old looks at me.
The narrative that runs through my brain in about 15 seconds: I’veNeverSeenThisWomanHereBefore. IHateItWhenPeopleComeUpToMeInParkingLots. MyKidIsWatchingThisForALesson. WhatLessonDoesThatNeedToBe? I’veJustBeenToChurch. ThereAreSoManyNeedsInThisNeighborhood. ICan’tHelpThemAll. IsSheJustTryingToRipMeOff? ForGOD’SSakeIAmTakingAClassCalledEatingAndDrinkingWithJesusAndIStillDon’tKnowWhatIsTheBestThingToDo. IHaveJustBeenToChurchAndThisWomanIsTellingMeSheNeedsFood. WhereIsEverybodyElse? Sigh . . .
I have been in this situation countless times across my life and across the world. It is never easy for me to discern the optimal thing to do. Never. I am always winging it.
We have a mutual moment of silence there in the parking lot under a bright morning’s sun. Then I commit.
“So you just want to go down the street to Village Market and get a few things to last you until Thursday?” She nods. “Okay, c’mon. That’s my car right there. My name is Jennifer and this is my daughter, Lillian.”
She introduces herself as Gina. We talk about kids. I tell her Lillian is my only one. Hers are grown. She worries about her younger son, Vic, who is serving in the infantry in Afghanistan.
As we enter the small neighborhood store, I tell Gina, “Look. I’ve got some money, but not a whole lot of extra money. Will you make sure you just get what you need until your food stamps come?” She reassures me of her thrifty intent.
Gina picks out simple items, looking for what’s on sale: bread, eggs, Vienna sausages, orange juice, chips, sandwich meat, and cheese slices. I help her find a 2 liter bottle of diet Mountain Dew and don’t begrudge her a pack of the gum she likes. I grab a few items as well so that Lillian and I don’t have to make another stop. Gina’s portion of the groceries total up to $32.
After we’ve loaded our purchases into my car, she starts talking about paying me back in food stamps and recites her cell phone number. I ask her to show some kindness to other people she meets. I consider this a practical response. We drive the couple of blocks to her apartment, help her take the groceries to her doorstep, and tell her we’ll pray for Vic in Afghanistan. On the subsequent 10 minute drive home, Lillian and I discuss of the moral murkiness of the situation. I finally conclude with the thought to her that no matter what the truth of the matter is, the food will get eaten by someone further down the hierarchy of wealth and power than we are. I’ve modeled decency, I hope, by being friendly without prying, respectful but careful. I tell her it’s hard to know what to do.
And it is.