You stopped me, holed up in a parking lot in my air conditioned car and white middle-class world, looking at my cell phone because I am trying to do better about not looking at text messages while driving. And you tapped on my window and I rolled down the glass and in that moment I felt so many things. Frustration, because I was already running late. Worry, because I don’t know who you are and what you want or why you’re breaking the majority culture norm of leaving people alone in their cars. And shame, because I’m in here, living my privileged life, and you’re out there, begging strangers for money, and food, and dish detergent.
So I got out of my car. I made it clear that I didn’t have any cash (and wouldn’t just hand it over if I did), but would be willing to buy you and your “hungry babies” lunch. And we walked across the street to Little Caesar’s Pizza and I felt so many things. Embarrassment, because here I was a white lady buying some underprivileged black woman a meal. Frustration, because did I mention I was running late to a meeting? Wariness, because I lived in the heart of Atlanta long enough to know that people’s stories are usually made up. And sadness, because the real stories behind “my babies are hungry, I’m homeless, I lost my job,” are usually much more complicated and more heartbreaking than the panhandling spiel given. I wondered what might be the underlying brokenness behind your story. What abuse, mental illness, unwise choices, or mis-education led you to where you are today? Do you have any community, opportunities, hope? Do your children have access to healthcare, good education, safe places to sleep at night? Do you have somewhere where you can sleep, shower, and go to the bathroom without fear and with dignity? Is there a way to ask these questions without being presumptuous? Without being arrogant?
And you asked if I was a good person, and I replied that I try to be. And you told me you weren’t “no bad person, just trying to get by.” And I asked about your babies, how old are they? And you told me, with embarrassment, or defiance, or surprise, that they’re 4, 8, and 13. And I forgot to ask your name, or their names, or introduce myself. And I forgot to mention Jesus, not in a preachy way, but in a way that says, “I am actually not a good person without Jesus. And he’s the reason I’m buying you and your babies lunch. And I want you to know peace, and stability, and dignity.” And I thought to myself, I can think of five people I know who would have done so much better if they were here. And I felt so many things, and I forgot to wonder what you feel. I forgot that you are a complex, nuanced human being, and I felt most of all the helplessness, as if seeing us through a stranger's eyes, of us two women being walking stereotypes, me with my business clothes, late for a lunch meeting; and you with your sad story, and just trying to get by.
I wish I could know your name. I wish I could know your story. I wish I could know how you feel about being a mother, and about God, and white people, and your favorite type of pizza, and all the million and one things that make up your story. But I don’t know any of that, and sometimes it's hard to remember that God does. And I pray that there are people in your life that know your story. Because really there’s not so much difference between you and me, fellow mama. Except that I could get in my car and drive away, leaving you and your feelings behind. Leaving you and your problems behind.
I hope the pizza was good, and filling, and that it won't be all you have to eat for awhile. I hope you know Jesus, and know that he knows you. That he created you, and loves you and your babies. You don't need me to tell you that for it to be true, but I wish I had, regardless.
Another Mama, trying to get by, too.