It was a Friday night at the grocery store and it was nearly closing time. The woman at the checkout had three small children with her and her cart was piled up with groceries. She seemed joyful even though her children were loudly acting up and behaving boisterously. Maybe she was just happy to be able to relieve the stress of empty cupboards and hungry children at home.
The line was long and I took my place at the end of it behind a very impatient and angry man. The woman at the checkout really seemed to bother him. Was it because her children were loud? Was it because she had so many items in her cart? Either of these situations could have been enough to annoy an overtired person picking up a few items from the grocery store at the end of a long week. But, it wasn’t the noise of her children or the size of her purchases that he complained about. He turned to me and in a very disparaging voice said, “I suppose she’s paying for all of that with food stamps!” His tone conveyed his disgust that she might be poor and might require government assistance to feed her growing family.
I prayed that my silence showed him my disapproval for his caustic remark, and I prayed that his voice wasn’t so loud that the woman might over hear him and feel embarrassed, whether she was paying with food stamps or not. I’ll never forget the time when I was in a similar situation.
When my children were small, my husband lost his job and my family qualified for help through the WIC(Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Nutrition) program. I was extremely grateful for the help that WIC provided for my family towards the cost of our healthy groceries each week. Yet, it was extremely humbling to apply for help and then to use the WIC vouchers for healthy foods at the grocery store. Using the WIC vouchers in the store meant that I had to separate my WIC foods from the other groceries I might be purchasing. I had to show my purple WIC book to the clerk so she could verify my signature for each check that I redeemed. It was a much more time consuming process at the checkout than a normal transaction would require. I always prayed that nobody I knew would come by and notice my low-income predicament.
So, one day, as I stood in line with my baby in the car seat section of the grocery cart and my toddlers gathered around, tired, as all young mothers with small children normally are, I noticed the clerk rolling her eyes at me, and heard her mumble, “Ugh! It’s a WIC transaction!” I realize that her comment was probably made out of the frustration that the extra work that the WIC process required, rather than out of a disdain for my low-income predicament, but at that stage of financial struggle, I took every comment personally. I calmly looked her in the eyes and said “I’d rather be in your shoes, processing a WIC transaction, than in my shoes, requiring the help that WIC provides.” Although my heart was wrenched by this small ordeal, after reflection, I’m glad it happened to me. It has taught me to be more compassionate, understanding and patient with others whose life predicaments leave them dependent, either temporarily or permanently. It opened my eyes to the plight of humiliation that the poor must cope with each day.
Lord, open the eyes to the good citizens of this world. Let them be grateful that they are not in a position where they need to rely on government assistance just to meet the basic needs of their families. Let them look, instead, for ways in which they can comfort and assist the poor, rather than criticize them with their condescending remarks. Amen.