July 11, 2008
In short, we were passionately clueless.
Jesus in Carhartts
Matthew 5:42 says, "Give to those who ask, and don't turn away from those who want to borrow."
That seems easy enough. Most believers are happy to give to those who have the courage to ask. But what should your response be when the need is obvious, yet the request is unspoken? And, how do you follow Jesus' command to meet the needs of others when you can barely meet your own?
I asked myself those questions while buying diapers at a local grocery store. A few weeks prior, my husband and I had moved with our six-month-old son to center city Philadelphia to begin a new church and "save Philly for Jesus!" Brad and I were young, in love with the ministry, and felt ready to serve God in a radical way.
In short, we were passionately clueless.
I was attempting to buy the cheapest package of diapers with Stephen strapped securely in the cart. "What exciting piece of plastic will be on your butt this week, Stephen?" I asked.
Stephen just looked at me with his big blue eyes. One day, he would wonder out loud why his mom was such a wacko.
A woman in my peripheral vision crouched in front of the cans of baby formula. It wasn't easy to determine that she was, in fact, a woman because the oversized beige Carhartts coveralls she wore swallowed her body like a heap of laundry on the floor. She was tiny and wore a red bandana on her balding head. When she looked up at me from her squat position, I caught a glimpse of her desperate eyes that sunk into her dark gray face.
Although I mouthed the word "Hi," she ignored me, turning her attention to the shelf and nervously piling cans at her feet. I quickly realized she intended to steal them.
Shocked by the realization that I was about to witness a crime, I grabbed a package of diapers and wheeled my cart into the next aisle where Ritz crackers and Cheez-Its sat in neat little rows.
"God, what do I do?" I prayed, my mind searching for a Scripture that might give me a quick answer to her desperate situation. It came up blank.
I considered offering to buy the formula for her, but money was tight and our budget would be blown. I reasoned with myself that I was wrong and assured my troubled mind that she had every intention of purchasing the formula. I chided my arrogance and presumption.
I looked down at Stephen, sitting so happily in the grocery cart. Here was a baby who didn't know what it meant to go hungry for more than a minute. My heart cried out for the child whose mother had to steal to feed him.
As I stood in the "10 items or less" aisle, I saw the bandana-wearing woman once again. She was leaving through the automatic doors holding a grocery bag. See, she bought the formula after all. I relaxed ? until I realized she was carrying a wrinkled brown paper bag, not the store's colorful plastic bag. Also, she was exiting through the entrance and steered clear of the checkout aisles.
I looked away and nervously scanned the shoppers to see if anyone else was watching. I felt like an accomplice to her crime, but was somehow exhilarated. Sure, I knew that stealing was against God. After all, he included it in the Ten Commandments. But somehow, this kind of stealing felt justified, and I was certainly not going to do anything to jeopardize a baby's chance to get some much-needed food. If I were completely honest, I would steal for my baby in a heartbeat if I felt that level of desperation.
I paid for my groceries, loaded Stephen and my bags into the stroller and headed for the exit. As I left, I almost collided with two official-looking men who were walking into the store. "What a stupid broad," one said.
One of them carried the woman's brown paper bag filled with her baby's food. My face felt hot and tears stung my eyes as I nervously scanned the streets looking for the Carhartts, hoping that I might find the woman whose baby needed to eat. She was gone.
And so was my moment. The opportunity to help someone who desperately needed it was right in front of me. The chance to be Jesus to a woman wrestling with life and losing stared me directly in the face, and I looked away.
I'd love to say that I never looked away again. While I have extended my hand to many, there are countless times I have passed a man sleeping under cardboard or a woman slumped in a doorway without offering even a glance. Matthew 25:42 echoes in my mind, "For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me."
We are surrounded by tremendous needs. If we truly desire to live like Jesus we must listen to both the expressed and silent pleas for help. Then, we must do something.
As for me, the image of the woman in Carhartts returning home empty-handed to a crying, hungry baby still haunts my soul.