Last month, I flew from Gulfport, Mississippi to Dallas Fort Worth, Texas.
I sat next to a man in his late sixties, who promptly turned to me and introduced himself as Gene.
He wanted to talk. I obliged, knowing that it would make the flight pass more quickly and also, I am an extrovert. Meeting and talking to strangers is my dream come true. Specifically, when he learned I was from the Seattle area, he wanted to talk about politics.
My eyes went wide, I’m sure. But he plowed right ahead, undeterred.
He explained that he regularly had conversations with his granddaughter (who was “about my age”) and he couldn’t understand why she felt the way she did. They constantly emailed each other news articles, commentary included. He mentioned that she had a “bleeding heart and not much common sense.” And when he discovered that I was a mental health professional, well, that only fueled his fire.
Gene wanted to know all about my social work, so I gave him a rundown of what I did on a daily basis. I explained the demographic of people that I worked with [foster care, so lots of different folks] and how my coworkers and I worked to serve families of all kinds.
After I finished explaining this, he said, “I’m going to ask you something that will probably offend you.”
I said, “Well, let’s find out.”
In regards to the dysfunctional adults who had their children removed from their care, he wanted to know: “Whose problem are they?”
I blinked, waiting for more. It came.
He wanted to know who should foot the bill for their chemical dependency treatment, their mental health services, who should give them housing, buy them food, etc.
He was talking money.
Those people were a drain on society, a burden, and he wanted to know who I thought should wear that financial coat, shouldering the itchy wool of the underprivileged.
“Whose problem are they?” He genuinely wanted to know.
And I genuinely wanted to tell him.
In that moment, I knew that whatever response I gave, he would have a counter response. He was intelligent, well-read, and had spent years working in banking and upper-level finance. He knew money, both on a personal and corporate level. He knew money in a way that I did not, and never would. We both recognized this. We were having a verbal chess match, and he was one move away from checkmate. He was prepared to tell me all of the reasons why he, a great financial steward, should not pay taxes for others who were undeserving of his carefully curated resources.
So I said the only thing that I thought he couldn’t argue away.
“Well,” I said, “I’ve guess I’ve made them mine.”
Two days after I got home, I went to the Goodwill on Dearborn in Seattle. I got a bunch of really cool stuff. I mean, I went there to buy picture frames and I got them, but I got a lot of other things as well. And none of it was stuff that I actually needed, it was all just extra stuff.
I had been wanting to buy a few things for my place, but I waited until after payday because I was feeling low on funds and thinking about bills and a little stressed about my finances. It was fresh enough in my mind that I remembered what it felt like to be worried that I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills.
Shopping always made me feel better, at least for a moment.
As I was walking out with a giant bag of stuff, I saw a woman who was wandering the parking lot, talking with shoppers, it seemed against their will. She was persistent, getting close and refusing to stop even when all social cues would tell her to. She spoke in a steady stream of words, and people stopped to listen. Clearly, there was something about her that commanded their attention. She was not easily ignored. She was being aggressive, kind of stumbling towards people in the parking lot and talking not in a loud voice but in a very persistent voice. She was definitely getting her point across, she would not be denied. She was impossible to avoid, like so many people try to do.
Myself included, I wanted to get past her.
And I thought I would, I was sort of relieved when I noticed that she was talking with a gentleman right in front of me, a man about my age, because I figured she was distracted and I could easily pass by unnoticed.
And then I heard her voice behind me, and something about it made me turn.
I could not tell you what age she was. Maybe between 25-40, but who knows. Age is such a fickle thing when you’ve had a hard life, you could be young in chronological years but be very old in the sense that that life has not treated you kindly and it shows.
She was slightly bow-legged and wearing a giant down coat. I looked into her eyes, uncomfortable, and I could tell that she was not well. Possibly on something, she had hollow eyes. And not many teeth. But that wasn’t actually what struck me.
What struck me was the fact that she was openly weeping.
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that before.
I’ve seen a lot of people begging for money by the side of the street, with that expression and presentation of asking for money or food.
But they’re never openly weeping.
Usually their faces are carefully steeled, a stronghold against the person that they know is going to reject them. It’s a protective choice, a defense mechanism. Their faces seem to say, “If you ignore me, or judge me, or pity me, I don’t care.” I was used to it. I’ve seen that presentation often.
But this woman was different. She cared, and it showed.
She began speaking, saying words that were strung together haphazardly. She explained that she lived in a homeless camp next door, and they had a gas powered generator that they used to keep warm, and they needed to buy gas because it was getting cold. I don’t know how many times she must have given that spiel to people, perhaps hundreds of times in just that one day. But as she got the end of her prepared speech, she wasn’t really looking at me.
Finally, she finished and made eye contact with me. I tried to smile in kindness through my annoyance, and I said to her quickly, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash.”
This was my typical, pre-prepared response. I had used it for years, often on autopilot.
But this time, it wasn’t true. And as the words were coming out of my mouth, I knew they weren’t true.
I knew it because I had just finished paying for my purchases and when I was putting my debit card back, I remembered seeing several bills in my wallet. I remembered because I so rarely carried cash that it was noteworthy. But it was such an autopilot response, that I said it immediately because I wanted the interaction to end. And I had said it so many times before that it just came out.
After all, that was the only socially acceptable way to get people like her to leave you alone. It’s not socially acceptable to say, “I don’t want to give to you,” which is really the truth, or alternatively, “I don’t believe you,” which is likely even truer.
But in this instance, I did have it and I knew that I had it because I had just looked in my wallet. Nevertheless, I gave that response to her and she turned away without really much to say, as if she had been expecting it. She might have mumbled “thank you,” but I can’t remember.
What I can remember is that the moment I said my response to her and turned to walk back to my car, I felt utterly convicted.
Oh my goodness.
It was like a weight on my heart like I have never felt before. Well, maybe I’ve felt it before, but it’s been awhile.
And it hit me so, so hard, this simple fact: I’d lied to her. Which says more about the state of my heart than about the actual lie, right? The fact that I was not willing to surrender $3 to her, that says more about me than anything.
It is a reflection of my ability to see her humanity and worth and to respond to it in a way that I was able to.
I had parked blocks away, because there was construction in the parking lot. And As I walked to my car, the bag that I was carrying gradually felt heavier and heavier. The weight of materialism was growing, and I was ashamed.
So as I crossed the parking lot, I started speaking out loud to God (as I often do). I said, “Okay, what are we doing here?”
In a frustrated tone, reflective of my own discomfort. “Clearly, you and me, we have something to settle. Because I have been knowing you long enough to know that there’s something we’re doing here.”
The direction from the Holy Spirit came to me clearly and simply: Put your stuff in the car, take the $3 out of your wallet, and drive back to where she was. Give it to her.
And I said out loud, “Okay.”
So that’s what I did. And when I drove to the front of the store, I looked around and I didn’t see her.
I realized that she must have left, and in that moment, I was devastated.
Because I had a clear mission of what I was supposed to do, and I had been too stubborn to do it the first time and unable to do it the second. I was so disappointed in myself.
After a few minutes, I took a deep breath and prepared to drive away. And then I saw her.
She was in the back of the parking lot now, leaning into a driver that was trying to pull out of the lot. I could hear her voice travel, and it took me a little bit to get over to where she was.
As I watched her stumble through the parking lot, the compassion in my heart ballooned to the point where it was painful. Physically painful. By that I mean, I felt like my heart actually ached. It swelled to the point where I felt like my chest might burst. In that moment, I looked at her and I saw her.
I really saw her.
I saw that she was a human deeply loved by a God who had created her.
And I felt in my soul that there was nothing about me that was more deeply loved by God than she was.
At the same moment, I felt an odd, deep sense of privilege that I had been able to see her and meet her. I felt blessed by her. I looked at her and I recognized her beauty, not externally but in her creation.
And I was very moved by the fact that she had been created in great love and for a great purpose that had been taken away from her.
And I felt infuriated that people, myself included, had so easily dismissed her.
And I also felt distinctly angry at a world that was determined to destroy her, and was at present being successful.
I drove up to her and rolled my window down, holding the cash out to her. I tried to make eye contact with her as I said, “I hope this helps you,” and gave her my silly, pride-filled $3. As I handed it over, I desperately wished it were more. I wished I had gas or a blanket or a hat or something. I even wanted to hug her, but that seemed wildly inappropriate and likely non-consensual.
She was still openly weeping, tears flowing down her face. I don’t think the tears had anything to do with my gift, I think that was just the state she was in.
She said, “Thank you, God bless” and stumbled away, and I felt a profound sense of loss. I wanted to call her back, to learn her name, to listen to her story.
I did none of those things.
Instead, I rolled up my window and instantly burst into tears. Not like a few pretty sparkling tears on my cheek, but body-hacking sobs. I made it out of the parking lot and then had to pull over because I wasn’t safe to drive.
I’m still crying right now as I type this, as I tell this story.
I guess that is what it’s like to see humanity through the lens of a Creator. God gave me glimpse into the desperate love that a Creator has for humanity, and it almost destroyed me.
To be honest, I’m grateful that I had that moment, a burst of heavenly eyes, but I’m also grateful that I don’t have it every day. I don’t think I could handle it. It is an intensity and a weight that I am not prepared to bear.
The weight of seeing a being through the eyes of a creator who desperately loves, in spite of brokenness and the way that the world has inherently rejected and beat her down.
I mean, that’s something I will never forget.
It was terrifying in its intensity, a supernatural view into a realm I didn’t understand.
In a culture where we are so fixated on exterior appearance, influence, and beauty; being articulate, intelligent and well put-together, this woman means nothing. She is disgraceful, she is forgettable, she is a tragedy that we see over and over again and actively choose to look away from, because it hurts our eyes.
And it’s not our problem.
I couldn’t help being reminded of Gene.
“Whose problem is she?”
Perhaps this entire incident would have passed me by if not for my conversation on the plane a week earlier.
Gene didn’t like my response, by the way. He believed that people whose experiences fell into the category of the woman begging for money at Goodwill, those people should be cared for by family. He maintained that meeting their needs was a personal, not political, issue. He explained his own position of having lots of family members and resources and used this as background for his opinion.
There was no room in the discussion for those who didn’t have family, or whose family was unsafe, or unkind, or unwilling.
I explained my personal value system, which is easily summed up in this statement:
Look around. Is the most vulnerable person in your community getting their needs met? If not, the resources available should be tailored and redistributed so that they are.
I also told him that there are certain people groups who have been marginalized for years, and are still being marginalized today. There are people who have been told over and over–either in so many words or simply by the way that our policies and culture treat them–that they don’t matter.
And here’s the thing, if you get the message over and over again that you don’t matter, eventually you’re gonna start to believe it.
And maybe I don’t know exactly whose responsibility or “problem” these people are when it comes to everything, but I do know that it’s a problem to think of these people as a problem.
I have a problem with that.
Whenever you look at one specific person or group of people and start to say that they are a problem, then you’ve already lost.
You’ve lost your compassion, you’ve lost your humanity.
And I refuse to do that.
Whether I “won” the conversation with Gene or not (I am pretty sure not), it was helpful for me to speak my convictions aloud to another who did not understand. It gave words, weighty words, to my thoughts and my calling.
And when I saw humanity, specifically that woman outside Goodwill, through the eyes of a Creator, it reinforced this value within me.
I know that I am meant to be a social worker.
So whose “problem” are these people? They’re mine.
The immigrants, the addicts, the homeless, the foster children, the poor. Those who have been told over and over again that they don’t matter.
I have chosen them, I have chosen this. And I made that decision not out of pity or altruistic reasoning, but due to an unbearable calling that I have been given wherein I cannot see people as a problem.
And if they are a problem, then I guess they’re mine.
They don’t have to be yours, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they’re mine. Because I want them to be. And until God tells me that I don’t have to anymore or gives me a different calling or calls me home, here I am.
They’re my problem.
Today is #givingtuesday, and below are a few organizations that I consider worthy of support:
ACLU is currently working to help families seeking asylum at the border and raising education around immigration policy: aclu.org
Tacoma Rescue Mission provides local housing and support for those who are homeless and hurting: trm.org
Olive Crest serves children and families who are involved with the foster care system by providing visitation, parenting classes, therapeutic services; and also license foster homes to care for the children however long they need: olivecrest.org