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Friday, March 30, 2012

In The Green Aisle

I'm not even sure what his name was, though he may have told me. He came to me while I was picking through the green bell peppers. They were 58 cents each, a fairly decent price, and I had just put two red and two yellow bell peppers into a thin plastic bag. Those were slightly more expensive, at 68 cents each, but still much cheaper than the usual 98 cents or more per piece. It was my last stop of a very full and rather frustrating day, and I was racing through the grocery store, throwing the usual fruits and vegetables into my cart as quick as I could so I could check out and head for home. As I tried to find a bell pepper that wasn't soft and bruised, I heard his voice.

"Excuse me, could you spare a couple of dollars?" I looked up, surprised to hear such a plea in a grocery store. I was used to seeing signs on the on-ramps or people sitting by a bus stop or on a street corner, but in a grocery store? He caught me off guard.

"I don't have enough money to buy the groceries I need, I'm on food stamps you see, could you spare a couple of dollars?" I looked at his basket; it held a single large yellow onion.

He was a tall guy, probably six foot three, of a heavy build, and wearing a grungy shirt that used to be white, and khaki pants (I think). His hair was a little messy and while he didn't look to be lacking for meals, he did look down and out. I rummaged in my purse, remembering the couple of dollars I had sitting there, and instead my hand pulled out a twenty dollar bill. I handed it to him.

"Are you sure? Can you spare that much? Oh thank you," he said, and then remarked that I must have a boyfriend. Painfully honest, I shook my head, and he immediately began to tell me that he was a college graduate, a Christian, and that he could teach me to play the guitar. I had already turned back to picking over the bell peppers again, and shook my head, embarrassed, as I replied, "No, thank you."

A young mother reached over my shoulder to grab a vegetable and I could feel her disapproving look. A minute later I heard him feeding the same line to another shopper several feet away near the lettuce. I carried on, bagging vegetables as I moved past the kale and cabbage. Suddenly my brain started to process what I had just done and I hurriedly decided that I should get what I needed and get out of there. I glanced back to see him at the meat counter, and as I went through the check out line, I saw him standing there, loud and obvious, purchasing his items.

In the car on the way home I thought about what I'd just done. I remembered Melissa, my best friend who gave generously to anyone to asked. Her mom had taught her to do that, and so she would fearlessly roll down her window at stop signs and hand twenty dollar bills out to scruffy looking strangers. I thought about all the Judge Judy and Joe Brown court cases I'd seen where loser guys expected codependent women to pay for their every whim and support their lazy habits. I remembered the story I'd heard in church about someone who resolved to put the largest bill they had in their wallet in the offering plate when it came around.

I wondered why I hadn't given the guy the two dollars. I had just quit my job and didn't need to be giving away money like it was spare change. Why hadn't I simply said "no" and turned away? Why hadn't I gone to the store manager and told him that someone was bothering the customers and asking for money? Was it because he caught me off guard and I didn't have time to think about it and figure out what to do? Was it because he seemed like a nice guy and I felt sorry for him? I really wasn't sure.

Then a very soft voice seemed to whisper, "If it had been Me, would you have given Me the money?" Yes! my heart exclaimed. "Then you don't need to worry," came the reply.

I'm not sure what I'll do next time I hear a voice in the green vegetables aisle at my local grocery store. Somehow I think I'll be making a more rational decision, a more logical one, than I did that day. After all, a guy really shouldn't be asking a girl for money. I need to learn to exercise sound judgment and not act on a whim, which I am wont to do. Yet somehow, I think it was okay. Maybe because, for that moment, I could act from a generous heart, and give. And that felt right.

Searching for Home

So it's that time again. Friday evening, about 9:30 pm, when I go online, praying the internet works tolerably well enough to let me access church bulletins before the campus gets out of vespers and streams Doug Batchelor sermons till midnight. I search the web, pulling up the usual standbys, throwing out random facts as pages download. "Pastor ______ is going to be here, and the choir is singing there," or "Maybe we should go there instead, they're having an international potluck." We spend the next twenty minutes debating the merits of driving 50 minutes to hear a great sermon or staying closer to home and taking our chances with the unknown speaker.

And then the frustration begins to build. It's very typical of a Friday night for me. It shouldn't be, but that's reality. I don't want to go to church. So I've said it and now you can all fall over in shock, write me off the books, shun me for life. Or maybe, you're silently cheering because you understand.

I remember going to church as a young child, as a teenager, and my memories are much happier ones. I was involved, serving, needed and loved. Church was a looked-forward to part of my week. What went wrong?

Coming to the States, it was a culture shock at first and I quickly realized that integrating into a church wasn't as easy as it was when we were the favored ones, as the children of the foreign administrator, or when we attended church with three other international families, creating instant connections where in another time and setting there may have been none. It wasn't like attending church with our extended family, where we occupied half the church from the littlest cousin to my elderly grandmother. In the States there were cliques, just like in grade school, and if you hadn't grown up in the church, it wasn't going to be easy to "get in."

The first few years were quite dark, emotionally. I found myself empty, unable to give, and searching desperately for some way to be filled spiritually.

I won't say I didn't try, though. I went through the motions, joined small groups and ministries, smiled at strangers, played the piano, and told a children's story. But a few weeks into each attempt, I realized that, yet again, the homeless ministry had enough helpers, the pianists were more accomplished than I, the young adult group was composed of couples and families with small children, and while everyone meant well, nobody understood. I felt alone and unnecessary.

So I returned to sleeping in Sabbath mornings, arriving at church just in time to miss the lengthy uninteresting announcements but in time to put my tithes in the offering plate and listen to the special music. After church, I left as quickly as I could, as I had tired of standing in the lobby, smiling painfully at people as they made small talk and then carried on.

What is missing, then? I think I know, but I'm not sure how to remedy it. I am finding that in the States, you have to keep going regularly to one church to even reach the point that you feel comfortable there, like going to your favorite grocery store. Regular attendance won't guarantee community connection, though. It just means that people know who you are and don't ask you to sign the guestbook when you've been attending six months (albeit sporadically).

Ministry is another important way to feel a part of the church community. Unfortunately, I have said no too many times when a zealous nominating committee member called me up and asked me to help out. Now I find myself wanting to help, but not exactly sure how or where to start. I'm not sure I'm needed, and that is the saddest part of it all.

Connecting with others on a deeper level is also a very necessary part. Finding friends with whom you can share your realistic struggles, knowing someone is praying for you, being able to dialogue about spiritual things, or just sharing a meal together. My peer group has almost disappeared from the church, making it harder to establish those connections with people who are from the same generation.

I do need to add a disclaimer here (in case anyone from the church I attend is reading this!). While I struggle with a feeling of disconnect, I appreciate how the church embraces people who are living through difficult times. I have seen them support, love, and open their hearts to the hurting and for that I am grateful. Perhaps it is easier to recognize the pain when it is death, illness, or a lost job. There are individuals in that church who genuinely care about others and who I feel blessed to know.

Thankfully I've found a church to attend tomorrow, so, for another week I can breathe easy. It doesn't seem right, though.