Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Day I Spent as a Bag Lady

My feet are cold. Numb. I go inside the kitchen to warm them up a little and peer through the little glass window on the door to see people picking at the bread boxes lined up on the ground outside.

"Bag?" I ask a gentleman wearing three coats and two different gloves, as he attempts to carry two loaves of bread and and bag of bagels. He nods, eagerly, as I snap open a used Acme bag and help him load his food into it. "Thanks, honey" he says and flashes me a smile, showing an array of broken teeth. "No problem", I reply with a returning smile, "Have a good Ash Wednesday".

We are in Kensington, one of the neighborhoods in Philadelphia with a high rate of drug users and homeless. Inside are a group of students helping serve the evening meal, aprons painted with biblical passages tied over their clothes, while some of our staff wash dishes in a humming Hobart, or serve up steaming piles of green beans. Outside the wind whips as people line up around the courtyard, clutching a yellow ticket that assures them a seat in the dining room, as others circle eight boxes of salvaged and donated bread goods sitting on the ground.

I have always bought my bread at the grocery store or from the bakery. I have never had to nit-pick over stale bread donated by stores after they can no longer legally sell it. When I drop food on the floor, I throw it away or toss it to the birds; I have never brushed it off and put it into my pocket.

One lady, pushing a baby stroller that has probably not seen a baby in 15 years claps her hands in joy. "They never have bagels; this is a treat!" she cries, hugging herself in delight as she unearths a pack of six in one of the boxes. Another man comes up to me and points at my forehead, and then at his own, then makes the sign of the cross. He nods his head and grabs a pack of hardened hoagie rolls as he gets in the food line. When he leaves an hour later, he's got his own ashes. He waves frantically at me, and I wave back.

"Hey", another lady tugs on my sleeve. I turn to her, thinking she wants a bag, but instead she points to an older lady sitting on the edge of a raised tree bed. "Yesterday was her birfday" she says. "But she won't tell me how old". She has been sitting there ever since I came out to hand out bags. "Oh?" I reply. "Tell her I said I hope she had a happy birthday". The first lady leaves, goes to the tree bed and says something to the birthday lady. They both look up and smile at me, and I wave in return.

I can't feel my feet. They are cold; numb. I am wearing what I wore to school today. Green tights and ballet flats, which are perfect for a classroom, but less so for standing outside in the cold dusk of early March. Still, I see people coming in wearing ratty sweatshirts and coats not warm enough for this climate. A mother shuffles in wearing bedroom slippers. A young man shuffles up, and I can see his $300 sneakers without scuffs hiding under baggy jeans. His gums are blackened and he is missing teeth as he reaches for a bag. The voice of judgement surges up in me, but I swallow it and give him his bag. He gets in line.

Eventually, the last people trickle through. I rebuff a man who calls me pretty and leans in for a kiss. "A bag, sir", I say and almost thrust the bag upon him. A car across the street has speakers on the roof, and they are blaring music. As I am putting some more bread out, a bright eyed college student from New Hampshire comes up to me and hands me a small flyer. He reads it to me: Come and join us for church and hot cocoa. We'll feed you sandwiches. He grins, a beacon of collegiate social justice and walks back you his group. A girl next to him punches his arm. "She's not homeless, doofus!" she says. He looks back at me, horror etched on his face. I just grin and call out, "Thanks, though!"

Do I look homeless? Does it matter?

Where do I fit in with this group of people? The shiny group of college students so eager to make a difference? I am not that far removed from them. One among a mass of homeless seeking a warm meal on a cold night? How easy to know that it could be that way for so many people.

And again, I say, does it matter?

I went to the soup kitchen on whim after school with some students and staff. I merely tagged along with the campus minister after a meeting at school. I didn't go there to make a difference. Honestly? I was kind of bored, so I went. I wanted to see what my kids did for service. I thought I might be of use.

My feet were cold. They were numb.

But after the doors closed and the gates locked, I climbed into a warm car and went home to a warm house. I took off my cold shoes and warmed my feet by the heater. I made eggs for dinner and ate bread that was fresh from the grocery store and would be eaten long before it could go stale.

I handed out 93 grocery bags. I talked to dozens of people. I helped hand out packaged food to people who made it to the gate too late. I did the time old tradition of a secret hand-off to a woman who needed some of the supply tampons before our high school boys could blink twice.

I heard "God Bless You" too many times to count.

Yes, my feet were cold. My nose was cold, and my hands are a little chapped.

But I cannot think of an Ash Wednesday that I will remember more than this one. I saw the face of Christ in many of the people who passed through St. Francis Inn. And as I go through Lent, I am deciding to be more grateful for what I have because I don't have to wait an hour and a half in line for a hard boiled egg and some mac and cheese. I don't have to wear three coats at once. And I don't have to get my bread from a box lying on the ground.

I sometimes think I don't have a lot. But I do. A homeless outreach center has showed me that in abundance. Next time, I am not going to go because I am bored. Next time, I am going to go because the man who said, "Hey thanks, bag lady!" was genuinely happy to see me. Instead of looking at them with pity, I am going to exude the same amount of appreciation that they have for me. Instead of being thanked for holding out a bag for their bread, I am going to share an appreciation of being allowed to serve them.

God's people. My neighbors. Faces of Christ among the breadlines.

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