A Mile in Her Shoes

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Luke 6:37

Did you see her in the grocery store?  She has two small children, babies really, squalling in the cart.  She’s parked in the babyfood aisle, blocking the lane…one hand re-arranging a bottle propped in the infant seat that’s resting precariously in the front of the cart. The toddler in the basket, surrounded by babyfood jars and boxes of diaper wipes, is pulling things off the shelf and she doesn’t even see him. She’s fumbling with boxes of rice cereal, rifling through rectangles of paper vouchers in her purse.  “That’s it,” you think, as you try to maneuver around the cartfull of chaos blocking your way. “Food stamps. My tax dollars at work.”  The toddler is screeching and shaking the side of the cart, he looks like he might pitch over the side at any moment.  The infant in the carseat is starting to fuss, her bottle having rolled to the side again.  Her nose is crusted with mucous and her brother’s face is covered with whatever he ate for lunch, you can feel the sticky from three feet away. The mother doesn’t even seem to notice the noise and disarray, she’s frantically tossing babyfood into the cart and picking up the scattered stack of vouchers that have fallen to the floor.  She’s everything that’s wrong with the welfare system today, too young, too overwhelmed, completely inexperienced.  You shake your head and push your cart on by, get out of there as fast as possible. You only hope that she’s not in front of you in the checkout line.

I’ve been there, too.  Rolled my eyes as I passed by.  Been frustrated by the fact that I’m scrimping and saving to buy the groceries in my own cart while she’s filling hers with the money that I (ok, my husband) worked so hard to earn. Judged her parenting based on the mess I saw in aisle four.

And this week, I have been the mother with the WIC vouchers.  The one holding up the checkout line, with the two babies in tow and 32 assorted jars of babyfood rolling around in my cart.

Hubby and I managed to avoid using social services.  We were dirt poor for a lot of years, and we barely made ends meet.  We would have qualified for food stamps and WIC for many years, but we proudly refused to apply for or use these services because by working hard and not spending money on ourselves, by driving old cars and sewing up the holes in our socks instead of buying new ones, and by God’s grace and the generosity of family we were able to make it through.  Were we right to refuse to look into these services that were available to help us?  I didn’t question anyone else’s decision to use those services, just figured it wasn’t for us. I was always glad to know that they were available should we really need them. We just thought we could get along without it, and we did. We were getting Hubby through school and we knew that there was an end in sight, so as little as we had back then we were looking at it all as temporary, a passing hardship. Those tough years were a blessing, they taught us to make a little money go a long way, and once Hubby finished school and got a good job we moved happily forward into the American Dream and didn’t look back.

Even in the hardest years? We were lucky, blessed.

In the last year, along with the two babies we took in, we began a crash course in compassion and understanding for those in “the system”.  A graduate level course on patiently dealing with mounting frustration, caused both by people and the system itself, with the programs available to the poor and lost among us. A learning experience that has highlighted both the remarkable faults of the system, the terrible brokenness and need that lives right next door without our realizing it, and the amazing strength and fortitude of the people we tend to hold the least respect for.  We have seen stereotypes confirmed and stereotypes proved wrong. We have been stretched in all different directions, we have been blessed and broken and challenged and changed and still, a year later, we are waiting blindly and trusting God to lead us.

In the days to come I’ll share some of what I’ve seen and experienced.  I’m not offering any answers, in fact I have found that I’m left with more questions the harder I look at things.  But it’s made me leave my safe little place of ignorant bliss and realize that there is a great need right here, in our own neighborhoods and on our own streets.  That there’s a whole world out there that I walk right by, that I could live a whole life not noticing if I chose to remain blind to it.

And the desire to judge?  One thing I’ve found, the more involved you become…you first fight the desire to judge by the way things appear.  Then you question every judgment you find yourself making, realizing that there are an overwhelming number of factors that contribute to the way things are and you are not qualified to sort through them all.  Finally, you find that there is simply a sense of profound relief…that this is not my job.  That I can do my best to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, and in the end I am responsible for my own actions and thoughts and nothing else; we are all accountable to the same Judge who is infinately more qualified than I.

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