I live in an affluent suburb of Atlanta, the kind of place where I am able to hide from things like homelessness and poverty, because everyone around me is similarly wealthy. I rarely see homeless people, beggars, addicts and the like. I am surrounded by clean people, people with large homes and multiple vehicles, people who get regular dental care, whose children play lacrosse and do ballet. It’s a sanitized world that I live in. It smells nice here.
Imagine my surprise when I was approached by an obviously homeless and drug addicted woman while wheeling my shopping cart around Aldi. She did not stride confidently through the aisles like the rest of us, picking up this or that and checking off a list. She slunk through the aisles like a whipped dog, eyes downcast, always keeping an eye on the cashiers, who no doubt have run her out of the store before.
She stunk. Her hair was dirty. She was wearing men’s jeans, too big for her, and men’s sneakers, also so big that it would have been comical if she hadn’t been so pitiful. She had the puckered cheeks of someone who is missing their back teeth, and the jerky, unpredictable movements of the addict.
She asked me to buy her some sodas. She came up to me as I was getting in line to pay. She asked like she expected me to say no. She was already backing away as she asked, ready to run. Her whole demeanor was fearful, the posture of someone who doesn’t belong, who has been yelled at, chased away, driven out. I said yes, because what else can you do?
I wondered what an addict wanted with soda. I had a cart full of healthy, expensive, organic and gluten free food, the best kinds of food, the kind of food affluent people in sanitized neighborhoods buy. I wondered why she didn’t want something to eat, but if she wanted sodas, then sodas she would have.
When I said yes, she ran to get them. She came back and stood near me as we waited in line. She begged me not to get her in trouble. I surmised that she did this often (although I shop here every week and had never seen her), and the store employees run her out all the time.
They say you should never give money to a homeless person because they’ll just buy drugs with it, and you’re perpetuating their addiction and homelessness. There are celebrities in Hollywood with virtually unlimited budgets for the best rehab and counseling, and they can’t get clean. What makes us think some homeless person with no support is going to get clean because we won’t give them a dollar, as if by our withholding we have just set this poor person on the path to recovery? Most addicts are going to die because of their addiction, especially the homeless ones. That’s reality. Me giving them a dollar isn’t going to make one iota of difference in their outcome.
But it makes a difference to my outcome. If I shrug them off, refuse to make eye contact, feel offended that they have interrupted my facade of wealth and beauty, my vision of the world as a nice place where people are mostly happy, then that is a statement about my spiritual health. If I want to use my wealth and middle class standing to insulate myself from other people’s suffering, if I am unable or unwilling to see the human-ness of homeless people, the fact that they are just like me only with different circumstances, that it could have been me, un-bathed and pitiful, if I had made different choices, been born into a different kind of life. It’s the similarity that’s terrifying, not the difference.
When it came time to ring up the groceries, I paid for the soda first. She stood nervously next to me, shifting her weight from side to side, the fear in her eyes making it look like she was in physical pain, literally cowering. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen a human cower. Stray dogs, yes, but not humans.
The cashier asked me something. I can’t remember what exactly. I do remember my response.
“It’s okay, she’s with me.”
The woman thanked me and left in a hurry with her 10 pack of sodas. They cost $3.74.
The couple behind me started talking with me and the cashier. Apparently, the woman asks people to buy her something small, then comes back later and returns it for the money. She runs around with a man who puts her up to it. He never comes in. As a woman, she is less threatening and better to run the scam.
I’m a sucker, so it never occurred to me that she didn’t actually want the sodas. The guy behind me in line said he would have done the same thing. We agreed that we have virtually everything, and she has nothing, so how could we begrudge her a pack of sodas?
By the time I got in my car, she was long gone. It was an upsetting encounter for me. Human frailty is hard to see up close. It carries a horrifying reminder that we’re all the same. I sin too. I’ve committed Big Sins, some of the ones they list in the Ten Commandments, but mine didn’t leave me homeless the way drug addiction will do. I’ve been addicted to things, just not drugs. I’ve been as destitute as that woman spiritually, on the inside. There but for the grace of God go I.
It occurred to me that my comment to the cashier is what Jesus does for us. He doesn’t buy us sodas that further our addiction, but he does stand next to us. He lends his belonging to us. He is good enough, he is worthy to be here, he can pay the bill, and he lets us share in that. He vouches for us, doesn’t let them throw us out. Someday when I stand before God, an addict of sin, some of it unrepented, knowing full well that I don’t on my own belong in Heaven, Jesus will say, “It’s okay, she’s with me.”