Walking in someone else's shoes

There he stood, a little cherub with corn rows on the top of his head and scuffed up, untied kicks on the bottom of his feet. His name was Traevon. He was the cutest thing I’d seen all day.

And I’d seen a lot of people. Old people, young people. Heavy people, thin people. People walking and people in wheelchairs. People who smelled bad, redolent of stale Pall Malls and wet dogs. It’s not uncommon where I work. After all, Union Mission is the largest Christian mission in the state, dispensing social justice on a grand scale. Indeed, each month The Mission feeds a number larger than the population of the city where it operates.

One of the first activities in what we call the "fall campaign" occurs in October, before the typically cold winter sets in. It's then that we hold a coat giveaway.

And that brings us back to Traevon. He was one of five kids, ranging from 10 to 2, belonging to a woman who had no one but herself to depend on. She’d piled all of her kids on a city bus, traveled out to our campus to get coats for everyone, and was set to climb back on the next bus back into town. Seeing just how difficult it was for her, we offered to help watch her kids while she “shopped.” Traevon and I hit it off.

See, I’m a do-gooder, a righteous promoter of social justice, proud of my own humility. I haven’t always admitted this. Heck, I haven’t always realized it…that is, until the 2009 Union Mission coat drive.

THE LAST TIME I bought a winter coat for myself was 2001. I was in my mid-20s and still in college. It was one of the first big purchases I’d made on the net, a charcoal gray campus coat from J. Crew. But after eight years, tons of trips around the country and notorious West Virginia winters it was time for an upgrade. Buttons were missing, the lining was tearing away at the seams…you get the picture.

So it was that I decided that 2009 was the year I'd get a new winter coat. Maybe I'd put it on my Christmas wishlist, maybe I'd splurge and get one myself. I'm not gonna lie. I was looking forward to it. Everyone likes new things, right?

Back to my story. My job during the coat giveaway was to take pictures, post updates to Facebook and Twitter, and generally stay out of the way. I'm not a "front-liner" at The Mission, so I don't often get to get my hands dirty, as it were, doing "boots on the ground" ministry work. Enough metaphors, though. Bottom line? I wanted to do some interacting.

So I did. I went around the room, helping people find the right sizes for their kids, replacing broken hangers, re-hanging fallen coats and making silly faces at children so they'd laugh a little.

And that's when I saw a nice, charcoal gray coat, much like the one I already had, hanging in the back corner. Wouldn't you know it? The thing fit. No holes, no stains, no weird cat smell. I determined, then and there, that at the end of the coat giveaway, I was going to make a financial donation to next year's coat drive and take that coat home with me. Now, it doesn't take much to make me happy--I'm a cheap date, as it were--so I was stoked. 

My dilemma was this: no way that coat was going to be there by the end of the day. There was just no way. The thing was too nice, too "new looking." It was name brand, for crying out loud. So I resigned myself to the knowledge that someone else would get it, someone who needed it much more than I did. And that was fine, really. After all, I came to The Mission to serve, not to be served. 

But as the day wore on, more and more people passed it by, some without so much as a glance. Each time someone approached that rack, I was sure they'd take it. But, no. Instead, at the end of the day, I was pleasantly surprised to find that coat still hanging in that corner. When we locked the doors, I pulled it off its hanger, threw it over my shoulders and, voila! I had a (somewhat) new coat for the upcoming winter.

And I started bragging about it, if you want to know the truth. "Can you believe no one took this great coat?" I'd say. That's when God burst my bubble. Kaye, a co-worker with a lot more experience working with those in need, glanced up at me wearing my coat, looked me up and down, and said, "Is it dry clean only?" I looked at the tag. It was.

That's when it hit me, like a ton of bricks: despite my "do-gooder" attitude, despite my outward displays of piety and my Pharasaical attitude, the bottom line is that I am hopelessly stuck with the mindset of most people in our me-first, full-of-advantage culture.

You see, when I look for an article of clothing--and I'd be willing to bet this is your priority, too--I see color, fit and style. I don't worry about practicality and warmth. After all, I have more than one coat in my closet. Heck, to be honest, I never really needed a new coat this year in the first place. That my first reaction to seeing this coat was how great it looked proves it.

Men and women in need view the world through a different lens. I'd be willing to bet that not one person who considered that coat for a minute even saw its label. Or its color. Or even how it fit them like a glove. No, they took one look at that "dry clean only" label and marked it off as unwearable. After all, for someone who doesn't even know where their next meal is coming from, what good is a coat that can't be washed in a laundromat? And that's if they're lucky. What good is a coat that can't be washed in a bathroom sink? In a river?

We like to think, especially this time of year, that we know a little something of need. After all, we sacrifice a little here and there, maybe serve a Thanksgiving meal (the day before Thanksgiving, of course) and put our dimes and nickels in those red kettles. Maybe some of us "slum it" a little, getting our hands dirty working at a soup kitchen. Then we put on our designer coats and slip into our warm beds after milk and cookies and go to sleep peacefully. (Maybe we stress a little about our jobs, and that keeps us up for an hour or so.)

Please don't misunderstand me. Be thankful for how God has blessed you. And thank you for your acts of social justice, whether it's donating canned goods or cleaning the bathroom of a homeless shelter.

But never think for a minute that you understand what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes until you've truly walked in someone else's shoes. Coming into that coat giveaway, I was sure I knew what hunger and suffering was all about. I see it everyday, after all. But I don't live it, and my attitude about getting a new coat only proved it. 

To quote Dennis Miller, I don't want to get off on a rant here, but until we start seeing the world a little differently we're never going to completely abandon our own creature comforts for the sake of others. We need to get to the point where it's more important to go without a latte one morning so that your local charity can have that $3. We need to get to the point where it's more important to see a gay man or woman as a person to be loved rather than demonized. We need to get to the point where it's more important to see a man on a street corner as a man instead of a lazy bum who won't get a job. We need to get to the point of losing sleep over children like Traevon instead of worrying about tomorrow's deadline.

Am I truly willing to abandon myself for others? I wish I knew.

How about you?


The Old Geezer said...

I enjoyed looking at your blog
God bless you