Last July I spotted an irony I am still pondering. While leaving a fast food restaurant in the up and coming, booming West Side of Des Moines, I rounded a corner leading to a main thoroughfare. Standing there on that corner was a woman and a child. The pregnant woman, probably mid thirties. The child 5th or 6th grade maybe. They stood holding a cardboard sign that read, “Please help my family. We are hungry.” This woman had positioned herself in the trafficway between several fast food and sit-down restuarants.
Now the irony. Three feet from where the woman stood was a “Now Hiring” sign for one of the fast food chains.
How does that work? I’ve wondered and wondered about that woman. Questions abound. Is she unable to secure child care so she can leave her children? Is she able to work? Is she literate in English enough to hold down a position in the middle of Iowa? Does her family only pan handle for food and other needs? Where does she live? Is she married? Are there other children?
And then the biggest question of all: “What is my role?”
It’s a Fine Line kind of question. Jesus teaches that “..even the least of these are my children…” He also teaches, “…when I was hungry you fed me…”
Incidentally, I had just fed myself, and met several colleagues at the fast food place. The woman and her child were standing there when I went in. And they were standing there when I went out. While I was in the restaurant, a teenage boy, maybe a junior or senior in high school, walked into the restaurant and asked for an application for work because he’d seen the sign. The same sign the woman was standing by outside.
I honestly don’t remember if I noticed the woman when I came around the corner going in to the parking lot. I do remember thinking there were people standing in a precarious place out on the lawn, but I do not remembering thinking much about her until I left. She smiled. Both she and her child waved as we passed by. I nodded and smiled back as I passed by.
Should I have offered her a meal. Or two? Could I have returned to take her into the restaurant to ask for an application like the teenager had? Should I have stopped and listened to her story?
Today I was over in the same area of town. It was about the same time of day. I always get turned around over there. I am bit directionally challenged anyway, but as I was following my GPS in search of a print shop, I found myself in that same parking lot. My mind rewound to our gathering there last July. Good memories. I wondered how those colleagues were doing and if they were still pursuing their dreams. And then I rounded the same corner.
There she was. The same woman. The same child. The same sign. “Please help my family. We are hungry.” But this time she had a small baby wrapped in a scarf crisscrossed around her body. And there were three other children of various ages, all younger than the first one I’d noticed last year. And there was a man. Her husband, I presumed. He was holding the sign. They smiled and waived.
The same corner. The same trafficway. The same “Now Hiring” sign three feet from where they were standing.
It is a weekday. It’s lunchtime. Have they eaten today? Yesterday? Is there a plan beyond this cardboard sign and their smiles for tomorrow?
Do they have jobs? Are they capable of applying for work? Are they willing to learn, to participate in daily work-a-day life? Do they know where and how to reach out for assistance? Do the children go to school? And the question I’m still pondering tonight. “Do they have a home to go home to when the day is done?”
Nine months have passed since I first noticed this lady. Nine months between my ponderings.
The questions remain. The answers are not forthcoming.
Jesus’ teachings still ring in my heart and echo between my ears.
It takes nine months to grow an embryo into a baby in the human womb.
How can so much develop and change in nine months? And yet so much stay the same?
I think of the lame man in the Bible. Three of his friends cared so much for him they carried him on his mat all the way up to the roof of the house where Jesus was speaking and lowered him down so he had a chance to be changed—a chance to be healed—a chance to walk. Those three friends didn’t have to do that. They didn’t have to engage in their friend’s condition. They chose to! They wanted to!
So does my lack of engagement show a lack of, ultimately, caring enough to engage in potential change? Those three men in the Bible didn’t know for sure if getting the lame friend in front of Jesus was actually going to work, yet they hoped. They were willing to take a chance on the potential outcome.
They made a choice.
Nine months passes in the blink of an eye, unless of course, you are in your eighth and ninth month of pregnancy waiting on baby to deliver. Then the ninth months drags on! But looking back, nine months fly by!
How does time pass for this family on the corner? Does time stand still as they wait on the corner and then go home ….or go not home.
This family has made their choice. They are putting their hope in potential kindness from strangers.
But if someone, someone like me even, engaged in their situation, listened to their story, learned their names and their hopes and their dreams, would positive change even need a whole nine months to give birth to new hope? New possibility? New circumstances?
The fine line is not between giving them money or not giving them money. The fine line is between engaging in their story, or not engaging in their story.
To listen is to care. To act is to be obedient. To engage is to offer hope.
The outcome is beyond my reach—completely out of my control. But the here and now of The Kingdom is bulging with opportunity. I have complete control over how I participate in the here and now.
I made the same choice nine months ago as I did today. But the past does not have to define the future. And so my choice does not have to remain my decision. There is still potential to create change—at least within myself!
Then the fine line becomes the difference between wanting to control the outcome, or simply being okay no matter how it all plays out.
The ultimate irony: I am the one who changes either way.