As we drove past run down buildings, and sweaty looking men in cowboy hats, and scary looking men with shaved heads and tattoos and tank tops on bikes grasping brown bags…I thought of how different I am from Jesus. He was not afraid of barns and sawdust and broken down buildings; He loved to talk to prostitutes and the seedy, hopeless masses. He was not afraid of disease, He touched lepers.
We drove up to another house, and it smelled like tri-tip and potato salad. There were children running a muck and adults sprawled out on the couches, watching Ghostbusters 2 on the Post-It sized TV. It seemed safe enough.
Eventually I wedged myself onto the couch next to the girl with too much eyeliner. She was deep in conversation with the man with the shaved head and the purple toenail. I tried not to listen. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. These were not my people.
I heard snippets of her conversation. Her DUI, her probation, her boyfriend…I wouldn’t have known what to say if she had asked me. These were not my problems.
She turned to me and said, “You’re probably wondering why all my girls have shaved heads. Like I want them to be guys or something? Heck no! I hated to do it. I hated to do it…but I had to.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I smiled.
“Well, they had lice. I had to do it. I just couldn’t get rid of it. They cried. They were so sad. They cried when I shaved their heads…and I cried too.”
I smiled again. I smiled hard, and the man with the shaved head said to the girl, “You should have shaved your head too, to show support! You know, show some support!”
“Heck no! I ain’t shaving MY head. I cried with them and I said they was beautiful anyways, but I ain’t shaving my head,” she said, laughing, “Well, they got them from their best friends, the neighbor kids. They got them, and we tried to get rid of the things, and my baby, she had grown her hair out since she was born, it was all curly and long. I had to do it though. Those other kids still have lice, I can’t let them in my house, they all have to play outside.”
The subject changed, and I drifted outside to dig a water bottle out of the beer cooler, and I watched the little children run around with their shaved heads, and I noticed that the oldest was compensating for her loss with lip gloss, and I wished I had the grace of Flannery O’Conner, but I didn’t. I just felt itchy.
We broke bread. I prayed that this was enough, this showing up and saying nothing much, and smiling, and eating 15 servings of potato salad. My sons played happily with the other children, the ones with no hair and dirty noses.
Everyone was laughing. I ate more potato salad. We left.
In the car I thought about how I never see these people unless they call me and offer to feed me. I see them maybe once a year, or once every five years. I still don’t know the names of the children with the shaved heads…I don’t even know how many there are.
These people in the shabby town, the ones who made so much food and so many children…they are my family: cousins. The part of the family that is always getting into trouble and living life too hard.
They embarrass me, and worry me and I want to fix them and show them how to live.
I thought about the afternoon and the food and the children. I had been fed a feast and I had just been hugged, and welcomed…by people I never call. I did nothing to earn the invitation…I’m just a far off family member who doesn’t visit regularly. You never realize how poor you really are until you’re fed delicious food by people who make less than a fourth of your income.
I’ve never invited them to my house.
When we think of showing Jesus to the poor and broken, we usually dream outside of our family tree.
“Stay where you are. Find your own Calcutta. Find the sick, the suffering and the lonely right there where you are — in your own homes and in your own families, in your workplaces and in your schools. … You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have the eyes to see. Everywhere, wherever you go, you find people who are unwanted, unloved, uncared for, just rejected by society — completely forgotten, completely left alone.” -Mother Teresa