I’m in a Subway owned by an Islamic family on Tuesday, January 3, 2017, along with the rest of the middle-class Americans who can afford the $6 meal of the day, or even our favorite sandwich, drink, and chips, even if that costs $9. We are at a busy corner of New Orleans, Louisiana. Our richer neighbors are across St. Charles Avenue at the more upscale Copeland’s Cheesecake Bistro. Their Black waiter and Asian waitress come across the streetcar tracks to the Subway for lunch to save money with the rest of us.
The passing green streetcar is full of tourists with money to spend.
Cars race past us as the place fills with other middle class people. The Fed-Ex delivery man is on the phone with his girlfriend while he unconsciously finishes his sandwich. The young woman in her first job out of college is in here too, but she takes her sandwich back to the office. Several working men hurriedly get out of their construction trucks and run in for a quick bite. They do not speak to each other at the table, but stare blankly at their cell phones.
The gray-suited businessman comes in and tries not to be too obviously perturbed when the yellow-scarfed lady behind the counter puts tomatoes on his sandwich instead of pickles. The line is getting long and she is hurrying like all good Americans. The young mother leaves the kids in the car as she rushes in to get them all sandwiches. The kids are still out of school and she is trying not to lose it on this last day before they return.
Two nursing assistants stroll in on their lunch break, walking a few blocks from their nursing home on this clear, blue-sky, seventy-degree day. I wonder if they see the sky, or feel their breath, or know how privileged we all are that we can at least afford a sandwich at the Subway?
A lesbian couple passes us up as they walk their dog. If they can afford the rent in this garden district area of New Orleans then they are doing okay. A lady with an African blouse waits for the next streetcar to downtown, her only form of transportation. I guess that she cannot afford a car, insurance, and gas. And two people ride by on bicycles, saving the world by decreasing carbon emissions from a car. A black senior adult rides by on his motorized wheelchair. At least he has a place to stay and a way to get down the street.
The disheveled woman on the corner is not as lucky as the rest of us. She owns one pair of pants, the blouse she is wearing, and a cardboard sign saying, “Anything helps. God bless.”
Then the carrion bells from the Zion Lutheran Church beside us play one verse of a noon-time hymn: “I love to tell the story of Jesus and his love.”
The song touches me. I grew up on it. It also brings questions. Does it help any of these random people to know that Jesus loves them? And what does that mean that he loves them? Is Jesus helping them get through each day, helping those of us in the middle class afford our Subway sandwich? Is Jesus loving the woman on the corner who can’t afford a sandwich?
Just as I get to my car, Gerard rides up on his bike. He is one of the thousands of inner city poor who never received a real education, never had a real family, and now he is down to owning a bike with two locks but no place to stay at night. He wonders if I will honor the pin on my collar that says, “Compassion,” and show him a little compassion by giving him the $10 he needs to put minutes on a “Go” phone, in case someone calls from the jobs he has applied for.
I do have $5 left in my wallet from my $9 sandwich at Subway. But I do not want to give him my last cash. I lie and tell him I have no cash. I have a home in the suburbs, a car, insurance, and gas in the tank. I can afford our part of the Affordable Healthcare insurance, with a lot of help from the government. I can pay for life insurance, and our monthly utilities, and enough food to eat every month. I can even donate ten percent of our family income to our church. So why do I resist giving Gerard $5?
Do “I love to tell the story of Jesus and his love” when it only involves singing a song at church, but have trouble parting with a little cash when a real human being needs it? Is Jesus waiting here for me to be his love to Gerard, while I resist?
I invite Gerard to join me as we gather at the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in a few hours, where we can offer him a voucher for a night’s stay at the Salvation Army, and a warm meal, and used clothes and new toiletries. I think I am being a good guy by treating him with dignity and listening for a minute to his plight, but what about that $5 in my pocket?
Maybe Gerard needs more than the temporary assistance of a place to stay tonight. Maybe he really needs a “Go” phone with minutes on it so he can get a job and start creating a better life for himself. Maybe Jesus wants to show Gerard love through me in the way that really matters to him. Maybe it is time to do more than be thankful for my Subway sandwich, and my middle class life.
I have thirty minutes until I meet Gerard at the church, if he comes. I have thirty minutes to decide about that $5 in my pocket that I do not need. I have thirty minutes to stop wondering about “Jesus and his love” and to become “Jesus and his love.”
Oh, so maybe that’s how this thing works!
Messy contemplatives gather around New Orleans in our School for Contemplative Living (www.thescl.net).