7/20/2015 0 Comments
A funny thing happened on East Lake Street the other day. I was on my way to Pham’s Deli to pick up a banh mi for dinner when I saw two cherubic, brace-faced teenage girls whispering to each other on the corner. They each had overstuffed plastic bags hanging from their arms and took turns glancing at me as I approached.
“Hey, do you have a second to talk to us?” The short one said, giddy.
“Sure,” I replied, “What’s up?”
“We’re actually on a mission trip!” The short one reached into her bag and pulled out a neatly wrapped ham sandwich and a bottle of water, the kind that suburban moms buy for soccer tournaments or long camping trips. “We’re handing out sandwiches and water.”
How nice, I thought, look at these girls, working hard, spending their Thursday night coming into the city to feed the hungry. How can I help?
The short one smiled a pearly, wiry smile and held the sandwich and water out toward me, expectantly. “...here!” she said, finally.
Wait, what? This is for me?
Hesitant, I took the items.
“All we ask for in return…” she continued.
Oh, I see. This is like a one-for-one kind of thing. You give me a symbolic sandwich, and I give you some money so you can donate food or pay for your church trip to a third-world country or whatever. Clever!
“...is that you pray for us.”
This seemed like the strangest, most counter-intuitive transaction ever. First of all, giving me food in exchange for prayers? Essentially selling prayers? I don’t know much about The Bible, but there has to be some kind of rule against that.
Second of all, why am I praying for you, exactly? For the success of your sandwich mission? But if the mission of your sandwich mission is trading sandwiches for prayers, I’d ultimately be praying for you to get more prayers for more prayers for more prayers! That’s a prayer Ponzi scheme!
Third of all, why me? You don’t understand, Sister Brace Face! I have a sink that dispenses potable water whenever I want it to! I have stocked cupboards and nobody to feed but myself! Heck, I was just about to go spend my disposable income on Vietnamese food! I am the last person on this block in need of a free sandwich!
There was a lot wrong with the picture. In the end, though, what I said was, “Okay.”
“You will?!” They both looked profoundly surprised, “Thank you!”
I stuffed the sandwich and water bottle into my backpack and went on my way, thinking about what in God’s name--perhaps literally?--I had just committed to. Do I eat the sandwich? Drink the water? It would be disrespectful to let it go to waste, but I would feel strange partaking. Do I pray for the girls? It would feel frivolous and cheap, but I told them I would, and I would feel guilty not following through.
Now, I’m not a particularly religious person. I’m not committed enough for regular observance, but I’ve had too many spiritual experiences to label myself simply agnostic. I suppose I’m in the trite, cliched “spiritual but not religious” camp that so many people in my generation have fallen into. Maybe it’s a cop-out, or maybe “spiritual but not religious” is the individualist’s answer to organized religion. We’ve got our own phones and computers all to ourselves, and now we’ve got our own faiths too. In both cases, some people would argue that too much time with either will rot your brain.
As part of my personal practices, I have a rule about prayer: I reserve it for special occasions. I would expand on what those occasions are, but I also have a superstition--much like Cinderella’s about wishes-- that if I say what I prayed for, it won’t come true. And so far my prayers have a pretty good track record. I can’t spoil that.
The girls’ request made me think of the diverse relationships that people have with prayer: staunch atheists who abstain, my host family from my year abroad in Mexico who ended every statement with “if God wants it to be so,” devout folks who pray before every meal, and others who only pray before meals on holidays. Girls who ask strangers to pray for them on inner city street corners, which I guess is a thing now.
I thought of a homeless man I saw under a bridge off the Midtown Greenway one morning, bowing his head in prayer with a can of Bud Light at his feet.
With that I finally decided: I would say a prayer for the girls, but I couldn’t keep the damn sandwich.
I headed down to the Greenway--with its makeshift bridge homes--to find a good spot to leave the meal for somebody else. I stopped in a community garden where, nearly every afternoon, I see the same man sitting on the same bench in the same dirty clothes. This would be a good spot to leave the sandwich, I thought.
But wait, how do I let the man know that the meal is for him? How do I let him know that it’s good? I don’t have anything to label it with, and even if I did, what would I write on it? “Free?” “Please eat?” Who in their right mind would go for that? What if he doesn’t come in time and some animals get it? What if it goes to waste anyway? What if the plastic bag doesn’t get properly disposed of and a bird suffocates inside of it?!
Aw, screw it.
I placed the sandwich and the water bottle neatly on the bench and tried to feel confidently about it. As I walked home, I thought about how a holier person might have waited to hand the sandwich off personally, which brings up the age-old question of whether or not we should be judged by our intentions alone. The missionary girls on the corner and I all had the best of intentions, but who knows if any fewer people went to sleep hungry that night? What is God’s work and how does one know when they’ve done it well enough?
I realized during that train of thought that I had almost forgotten to pray. I said a few words for the girls, which led to a few more words for every sick or hurting person I could think of. I wondered if this was the girls’ secret master plan: to ask for prayers for themselves in order to catalyze prayers for others. Maybe they had planned all along to hand sandwiches out to the privileged among us to make them consider their own blessings. Maybe they were the puppet masters in a grand operation founded in selflessness and gratitude. Who could look down upon that?
Or maybe they just saw a twenty-something white woman walking across the street and, for whatever reason, decided, “yep, she really needs a sandwich.”
In the end, God only knows.