I sat quietly on my hard chair this morning, in a room full of noise, sweat, smoke, and strangers. Next to me, a bedraggled kid with spaced-out eyes pushed against me to get through the crowded aisle. I pushed my nose further into my book to quench the nauseating combination of cigarettes and body odour. A minute later, my toes barely escaped being backed into by a severely overweight and bearded woman. I felt my face flush when the man in charge started handing out the flyers—the ones advertising a free dinner under the railway bridge tomorrow night.
A friend of ours once told us about a church down the road which collects leftover stock from all the local grocery stories–perfectly good things that are on the verge of expiring or have some slight cosmetic damage. The church then sets up its own market with truckloads of produce that come through every week, and gives it all away to anybody who comes through their doors. Free groceries! I suppose that’s enough to make anybody’s ears perk up, and I thought I’d check it out. (Disclaimer: I’m not one of those die-hard bargain hunters who’s always digging for the next freebie, but my background is Mennonite. And I am the wife of a med student. I have yet to meet somebody else of this enchanting combination who won’t go to a few measures to save a couple of dollars.)
I went, cloth bags from Aldi in tow. I got there a bit late, so I was number 73 in line. I walked past the 72 other people to get to the back of the queue–some of them grinned toothlessly and cautiously in reply to my smile, but most suspiciously squeezed a bit tighter together as if I was going to dare to butt my way in. Number 74 came up the sidewalk, and decided to stand in front of me, holding her head high as if she was completely unaware that she had just jumped the line. The man beside her swore under his breath. I just shook my head because one number’s difference isn’t enough to complain about. The guy up at the front with curly hair and rings under his eyes proudly held up his “Number 1” card and told everyone there how he had come at 10PM the night before to camp at the gates, so he’d be the first through the door on the morrow. I felt myself shrinking against the fence. What kind of place was this? I stared straight ahead, into a sea of backs. Tattooed backs. Dirty ones. Backs half-covered with frayed singlets–three sizes too small.
It started raining. We were finally allowed inside. There was a mad rush for the chairs in one direction, and a reckless stampede in the other towards the free cappuccinos and chocolate muffins. The pushing, the shoving, the undignified, less-than-human behaviour: it was too much, and I slipped quietly inside, becoming more embarrassed by the minute. I would just stand up to wait, and I did. For one hour. And then two. My feet and back throbbed, and I tried to push my pregnant belly out as far as possible. But the front row full of capable men didn’t budge-they sat with arms crossed in front of them, holding down their treasured seats as if it was Life’s Most Serious Business. Then the numbers started being called, the piles of fresh bread and shiny fruit began slowly dwindling, and I collapsed into a now-empty chair to wait some more.
And while I waited, I let repulsion, embarrassment, and frustration fester deep down inside me. These people–these homeless, needy, simple people–were the kind that I imagined serving. Ministering to. In my imagination, I’ve been the one with my arm around them, praying with them, showing Christ to them. I’ve imagined before being a person in that same sort of room, only I’d be behind the counter giving, not waiting in line to get. But I was sitting with them. Surrounded by them. One of them. Me in my maxi dress and coral shoes, feeling so out-of-place, and desperately hoping in my mind that all the workers there weren’t associating ME with the others–as one of the crowd.
I sat, feeling more self-sufficient and righteous by the minute, thanking God that I had a cozy home, a clean-cut husband, a reasonable income, the decency to shower daily, and the ability to live above government welfare programs, when it hit me. A tidal wave of shame and regret like I’ve never felt before.
I’ve always imagined serving people like the ones I was sitting with, because there’s safety and a secure identity there. I am The Giver, stooping to their level to meet their needs. It keeps me just slightly set-apart from them. The idea of “reaching out” appeals to me, because it naturally assumes one to be a couple rungs higher than the needy to begin with. It’s clean, it’s safe. People will see me as a godly, humble servant, but will of course know that I’m different than the ones I try to help. It’s predictable, it’s expected. And it’s dangerous.
I sat quietly on my hard chair this morning, in a room full of noise, sweat, smoke, strangers, and a mysterious, overwhelming feeling that Jesus was there. I closed my book, (which I hadn’t really been reading) and looked up with eyes on the verge of filling with tears. I could see Him–in the hands of the people giving food and blessing people, yes; but mostly, I knew He was there. On the uglier side of the counter. Waiting in line too. Among the swarming masses of tattered shirts, mismatched socks, tobacco-stained teeth and the lost souls behind the beautiful eyes of each one of those people. That’s where I felt Him, and that’s where I sat: ashamed, embarrassed, defensive, and then ashamed again. In my quiet, proud apathy and silent, smug resentment of the people who I was being associated with this morning, I let my Jesus down.
There, in those ten minutes before my number was called, I thought hard, and I repented hard. I’m a person slow to accept help. I get things done more quickly and efficiently on my own. Today went against everything inside me: sitting in a room full of people who actually depended on that free food for survival. Being far from homeless or deprived or disabled, but being seen as one of them.
And there, in those last ten minutes, it was okay. Okay to need with them. Okay to accept those 10 potatoes and the soft loaf of bread and glossy plums being dropped into my bag. Okay to admit that we do need to pinch our pennies and that these countless food items really will come in so handy this week. Okay to close my eyes and let the worker there put her hand on my shoulder and pray for all my needs to be supplied. Okay to be where Jesus would’ve been too: on that same, uncomfortable, embarrassing side of the counter.
I am needy. Much more so than the people I was surrounded by this morning. They lack the physical–a roof over their heads, hope for next weeks’ meals, and a predictable tomorrow. I lack something much deeper.
I don’t want to reach out to people anymore, because reaching means distance. I want to find Jesus in the arm-to-arm, the gritty, the dirty, the being right next to. In seeing the beauty behind the puffs of cigarette smoke, grungy hands brushing my dress, and the grey beard of a woman. I want to know Him by becoming one of them too.
May the dirty, worn floor I waited upon today become holy ground.