One steamy summer afternoon, I sat down on a metal folding chair in the basement of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Saint Louis, Mo., to catch up with Miss Pearl. I’d volunteered at this inner-city shelter for over a year, and I looked forward to my conversations with Pearl, a widowed grandmother and the guardian of four children. Her life had been hard, but she was a strong Christian woman who radiated joy and calm in the oftentimes chaotic, gloomy shelter.
When the front door buzzer sounded, the manager on duty flew out of her office. “Move these tables back and find a seat, please,” she called. “The Girl Scouts are here!” Moments later, a dozen uniformed girls filed into the room, flanked by two mothers. As the shelter manager welcomed our visitors, they stood stiffly in front of the beige cinder-block wall. One mother balanced a bulging canvas bag of donations on her hip. I tried to catch her eye, gesturing toward a table near me where she could lay down her burden. She seemed not to understand, so I slipped from my seat and crept closer, smiling and stretching out my hands to lift the heavy bag from her arms.
Sensing my approach, the mother turned abruptly to face me. Her steel-blue eyes glimmered with fear, stopping me cold. I hesitated, then instinctively backed away. What is she so terrified of? I wondered. The answer hit me like a slap: Me. She had taken me for a homeless woman, and she was afraid of homeless people like me. No one had ever looked at me with pure, raw fear. It stung.
I slunk back to my seat and watched as the visitors placed their donations on a folding table and backed away. It was understandable that they did not hand out the second-hand clothes and toys; residents were invited to approach the table and pick one item apiece. But our visitors’ discomfort was clear; neither the girls nor their mothers mingled with us. Their duty done, they departed quickly.
After they left, Pearl said cheerfully, “That was nice.”
I was astonished. Surely Pearl had noticed how the women and children kept their distance. I thought the whole thing had been awkward, even demeaning. “Didn’t you see how that one lady looked at me?” I said crossly. “Like I was going to bite her!”
Pearl studied my face before answering. “Honey,” she said carefully, “before you get to know us, of course you be afraid. You got to concentrate on how the little girls tryin’ to do the right thing, like they your own daughters, and you got to try to be friendly.”
She was right, of course. Not only that, Pearl was gently reminding me that I myself had been the recipient of her kindness and acceptance. How many times had I glided through the shelter doors bearing my good intentions like a badge? How many gifts of questionable value had I deposited at her feet?
My face reddened, but Pearl just chuckled softly and reached out to pat my hand. “You are my friend,” she said simply. “You all right.”
Carl Jung got it right: “That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ — all these are undoubtedly great virtues. . . . But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars . . . the very enemy himself — that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness?”
Pearl passed away over 10 years ago, but her words have stayed with me. She helped me see that no gift is as precious as human kindness. It is a gift anyone can give and receive, in every time and season. May it begin with me.
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