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She would have been naked, if not for the American flag painted on her chest and the frayed denim shorts saluting her derriere. “$20 for a picture with me,” she offered in her broken English and broken confidence. She and a few of her co-workers sauntered through Times Square gathering cash and wide-eyed looks from unsuspecting tourists. This was part of the scenery as I walked my High School youth group to our destination – a Broadway show; a well-earned treat after a week of work projects at our sister church, Greenpoint Reformed Church in Brooklyn.
Gordon, my friend, as well as one of my supervisors at Hope Church in Holland, MI, and I have a running joke. We imagine all of the fictional foibles I might encounter involving our youth that could get me fired. As we mazed our way through the crowded square, Gordon and I made eye contact and shared a bit of a chuckle; this particular incident defying any scenario we could have invented ourselves. We pushed towards the Lyric Theatre on 42nd Street, assaulted by all the marketing the Madison Avenue commandos had to offer. High definition billboards, chain stores five stories high open every night until 2, hawkers in our faces coercing us to buy scalped tickets for Jon Stewart’s last show that night. The teens clutched their bags a little tighter and focused their eyes on the beacon of Gordon’s blue shirt as he made his way forward, until we finally stepped into the quiet lobby of the Lyric, a white flag of surrender amidst the chaos of the war outside.
Earlier that day, we confronted a different chaos. It is not every morning we awake in a church sanctuary, the coolest space in the building, and rarer still to sleep on the floor next to 50 pounds of onions on the pew next to you. But that night we did. Our wake up call was the arrival of three food distribution volunteers who entered the sanctuary at 6:30 AM to set up the food that had been delivered the day before. The sanctuary/bedroom was now a temporary pantry. We rubbed our eyes, brushed our teeth, and caffeinated our hospitality, before we joined the volunteers in the preparation to hand out countless bags of groceries to a couple hundred of Brooklyn’s neediest. At my station, I offered folks the choice of cranberry juice concentrate, a 16 ounce box of raisins, or a can of pureed cranberry sauce.
One. They could pick only one. These neighborhood families could choose between raisins, a small bottle of juice, and a can of corn syrup, gelatin, and pureed fruit. No high definition billboards herald choices like these.
“Did you know that if you blend cranberry sauce with milk, it makes a delicious smoothie?” The older homeless man who went by “Flag”, named for the signature American Flag he always tucked in the back of his baseball cap, was proud of his resourcefulness. Flag helps out at the food distribution, as well as takes what he needs.
One. Flag could pick one.
For the next three hours each of us manned a station. Natalie and Caroline offered a choice of three cans of soup from a selection of five varieties. Ian offered the choice of brown rice, white rice, or a box of pasta. Clara and Isaac offered bags of onions and bags of carrots, by far the most popular table in the line. Each of us from Hope Church young and privileged. Each of us trying to overcome the barriers of English, Spanish, Polish, and degradation to explain that each could have only some and not all.
Later that night, we emerged from the song and dance utopia on Broadway and stepped back into square, its anarchy just as acute as it was several hours before. We had informed our youth that we would take 45 minutes to break into small groups and visit one of three stores. One group would go to a popular chain clothing store, one group would go to a cheesecake stand, the rest could wait for the others at the Starbucks while the others shopped.
One. They could choose one.
45 minutes later we met at the Starbucks bathed in the sensory overload of lights, noise, activity, and painted women. Like a waddle of penguins pressed together for warmth, we banded together and pushed our way down to the subway platform below.
As we boarded our train, Ian, one of our youth said softly, “This morning I was trying to explain to an elderly poor Polish woman why she couldn’t have an extra bag of rice and tonight I watched adults throw $30 at souvenir T-shirts in Times Square. How can anyone process this?”
How can anyone process this? Do we even choose to try? What do our choices say about about who we are?
Choose wisely, friends.