This post is a follow up to my previous post, You Don't Have to Feel It.
I tell the college-aged women at my church that service industry work builds character, and I truly believe that. You're being paid to interact with whoever comes in the door; to answer even dumb questions with kindness; and to treat rich and poor, annoying and pleasant with impartiality and grace. Now, I haven't always seen this principle of equality practiced that effectively among my coworkers and I admit to being less-than-welcoming on a few occasions, but I believe in the ideal, and that normally keeps me from snapping.
Life has changed a lot since I got my first retail job and it's changed even more since August, when I started managing a church-run charity shop. Suddenly, most of my coworkers were 60+ and my customer base became a lot more diverse. While it wasn't always easy to please the affluent, international clientele at the coffee shop on the Downtown Mall (an outdoor pedestrian street full of local shops and street musicians), it was predictable enough to fall into a rhythm. Wealthy, left-leaning business people seemed more alike than different, so I could easily go on auto pilot and I didn't have to hold my tongue - they appreciated the spectacle of their minimum wage barista chatting about politics and theology while the espresso grinder whirred in the background.
But the thrift shop is different. The thrift shop doesn't discriminate. Due to its place in the retail hierarchy, it can't help but welcome all. We're here for the poor and the bored, the frazzled mom, the wealthy house wife, the college hipster. Anyone and everyone comes through that door. We've made coffee for a homeless couple who got caught in an autumn rain storm, outfitted a dog in a child's vest to keep it from getting cold, opened the staff lunch table to a new age hippie who lives on the outskirts of town, given free clothes to new mothers, bartered for tech services with a man with life-threatening allergies, and enlightened a donor about the global human trafficking industry. We've cried, prayed, and laughed. We've played with children and helped old ladies out to their cars.
It sounds like utopia - and it is, in a way - but it isn't easy to keep being open to whatever the day holds. It's easier to sit in the back and chat with coworkers. It's easier to sit in my office in the dark, checking emails aimlessly or texting my husband. It's easier not to deal with the uncertainty of each new interaction. And things between me and the volunteer staff have gotten heated on more than one occasion. We gossip too much; we forget we come from different worlds.
I can no longer make assumptions about who people are, or how they'll react. With every interaction, it is made more clear that I'm dealing with individuals, not stereotypes. I have to see the person in front of me - really see them - and I have to make a little room in my heart for vulnerability and loosen the death grip I have around my perspective. This is community; it's not about me.
This is what I'm getting at: mutual understanding doesn't come naturally. To see people, you have to be willing to get to know them. You have to ask them what they need instead of assuming you have the answers. You have to see past the small talk and really look them square in the face and try to memorize it for next time. You have to learn to do this every single time. And it's never easy.
If we want to build a world full of compassionate people, if we want to change lives both here and across the globe, we have to start with the people right in front of us. We have to start having intentional interactions, every time. Charity becomes problematic when, instead of seeing the person on the other side, we only see ourselves reflected back.
Artwork: Communion by Ruth Meharg. Used with permission.