You meet a lot of people at the food pantry.
The old man, 83, who came in. A small wiry fellow. He took great pains to explain to me that he has worked all of his life, at the same place, too. When the owner of the business died, the job was done, but he was old, and it wasn't a bad thing, retiring. He had a wife, and between the two of them, their social security tided them over. There wasn't extra for luxuries, but they were making it, and they were happy enough. And then she died. On his pension alone, suddenly, he could no longer make ends meet. So, as I gave him his bags of food, he said, "If you happen to hear of anyone needing someone to do odd jobs, I'd be interested.
83 years old.
I asked him what kind of work he was looking for. He said, "I repair lawn mowers. I do lawn work. I'm not as fast as I used to be, but I'm a steady worker and I do a good job."
I took down his name and phone number, and promised to keep my ears open. I came back inside and sat down, picking up my cell phone. My friend, who lives on a tiny house up the river from us, was looking for someone to do some light yardwork.
I messaged her and said, "You're NOT going to believe this..." but she did, and she took down the number.
She was surprised to see two men show up at her door the next day, a younger fellow and the wiry little old man. She told them what needed doing, and it touched her heart to see that the younger man carefully selected the lightest work for the old man, and did the heavier work himself. After working for several hours, they got everything done. She asked how the young man how she should pay them and the young man quietly said, "Just go ahead and give him the money," indicating the old man with a slight nod.
My friend curiously asked, "Are the two of you related?" and the younger man said, "No. He has been a friend for a long, long time."
That's a touching story.
There's the grandmother who has custody of her grandchild. She was doing perfectly well too. Her job supported her nicely. But now there's a grandchild who is still in diapers, and her mother, the child's great-grandmother, is helping out with childcare, because Grandma can't afford it on what she makes. Those additional expenses made her life very difficult. but she was fiercely determined to do the best that she could for this innocent child who didn't deserve any of the crap hand that life had dealt him so far. She started out using the diaper ministry, but in talking with her, it was determined that she could use some help with food too. She was embarrassed to death, and we talked a long time with her. "Listen," we said, "you're doing a lovely thing for that grandchild, and we can help you."
You can see it written plainly on a lot of faces. They feel like they need to explain that this is temporary, that it wasn't always like this. It doesn't matter to me. I don't ask a lot of questions. Just the general stuff "How many in your family?" "Any allergies?"
It works out okay. I'm feeling my way along carefully. I don't want to fail.
Last week, a fellow came in. He's tall and thin, I had been introduced to him by another woman helping out. She explained that he and his wife had recently divorced, after over 30 years of marriage, to qualify for more assistance. They had it rough, my friend thought, because they had these children who had moved back in with them, and these children had returned with their children too.
Jill later related this with not one trace of judgment and she and the man stood and talked in a friendly way long after I'd given him 3 bags of food. I felt ashamed of myself as I listened to her, because I felt the curlings of ugly judgment in me.
Last week the man returned. We had been hard hit with food requests and we are a small food pantry. I put together two bags of groceries for him from what we had. I try to assemble things that can be put together to be meals. I'm pretty good at that, if I do say so myself. As I set the things down on the table, he said abruptly, "In three days, they are going to shut off my water. I need $50."
A little taken aback, I hesitated, unsure of how to advise him. He said, "I talked to my brother and he won't lend me any more money. Said he's done. If I have to get a job, I guess that's what I'll have to do."
I said, "Well...I'll keep my ears open..."
He picked up his bags. "You know, they used to give you gift cards and you could do your own grocery shopping. Why'd they stop that?" He seemed kind of angry when he said, "This needs double bagged."
I watched him walk away, and I found myself thinking, 'maybe I'm not right for this job...' because there I was, Judgy McJudgerson. Jill looked at him and saw a human being. She somehow was able to look past all that. Me? I was thinking some pretty uncharitable thoughts about the man and I was not happy with that response.
The man fit every single negative stereotype you hear about the poor, about how they use the system, how they are lazy, how they are their own problem, etc etc etc. The local bumper stickers that read, "I work hard. Millions of people on welfare depend on me" or the folks that believe that hungry children should remain their parents' problems, not ours. It goes on and on, the angry rhetoric about 'them', as if they are a subspecies, something less than us, as if they deserve their lot in life.
There I was feeding right into that mindset. I was ashamed of myself. What if I wasn't the right person for the job?
I'm not sure where the answer came from, but by the time that I was walking to my car, I was able to see one thing very clearly: Mr H was not representative of most of the people I meet. He was an exception to the rule. That if I allowed one negative experience to cloud my judgement of everyone coming for help, I wasn't fit for the job.
And with a little effort I turned my thinking to the other things.