Privilege

 

If you are reading this today, you are privileged. You have access to information, freedom to share, and the ability to read words marching along a page in a straight line, not dancing in circles inside your head.  So many elements outside of your own control have brought you to this moment in history, most of which you likely take for granted except when they are highlighted or challenged.

I am going to tell you what showed me more clearly my own privilege than any other event in my life, a moment that ashamed me because it brought to light my own fears and prejudices and my own recognition that privilege has separated me from the world in many ways.  It began the day I met Timothy.  His progression to my front door actually was quite long.  Nick passed Timothy walking along I-94 near Galesburg.  He passed, but God told him to return.  So he did…and this is part of what happened…

A Pork Chop Sandwich

Timothy stood hunched over the messy counter, and when he turned, he was clutching two thickly breaded pork chops sandwiching a burger patty.  It was obviously a strange conglomeration from the leftover pile of mismatched Tupperware in the fridge, and it was still clearly cold.  She felt frustration; those leftovers were for an upcoming meal, he was making a crumby mess everywhere, but most of all, his eyes gave away his own unawareness of the social faux pas in which he had put himself.  That inability to use the graces she had been raised on was what kept putting her over the edge.  But what could be said?  Timothy began babbling on about his hunger, boxing her in to the tight kitchen corner with his mindless forward shuffling.

“These are good pork chops,” he addressed her between slack-mouthed chewing.  “I haven’t had pork chops in a long time.”

She didn’t know how to respond.  The moment felt uncomfortable, not apparently for him, but painfully so for her.  The internal fight was escalating between showing grace, and love, and mercy, all the things she had been taught by parents and pastors, and demanding some form of social order in her own home.  And as Timothy inched ever closer, her own issues with personal space pushed her more toward frustration, discomfort, and desperate awareness of her inability to control the situation or her emotions.

Timothy was a bit like a stray dog whose owners hadn’t stepped forward.  He needed to be fed and cared for or he could find himself in danger, his own mental incapacities a constant enemy for him.  And yet, like the puppy you didn’t pick out from the breeder yourself, there was a grudgingness to her care that was palpable.  She hadn’t even brought him home.  Her husband, unable to ignore the nagging voice in his head, had looped around on I-94 to pick him up, then spent half of his work day trying to get him into the local shelter.  He was the hero; she did not have his compassion or his way with people.  She liked order and clarity, which was difficult to find when dealing with poverty, mental illness, and state organizations.  Although she wanted to help, she wasn’t very adept at jumping into the middle of the messiness.  

Timothy interrupted her thought process.  “Can I have a Coke?”  he asked, his dark brown eyes expectant and his stare dogged.  

“Of course,” she replied. “They are in the bottom of the fridge.”

Timothy had jumped from the shelter, to the mental health ward of a local hospital, and eventually, back on to the street, where Nick again picked him up and brought him home.  The brokenness of the system and the many difficulties that a middle-aged man with disabilities like Timothy presented made the process difficult, and Nick couldn’t ignore Timothy’s phone calls, imagining him downtown at a pay phone, gripping tightly to the grubby business card Nick had left with him.  Nick was Timothy’s only connection in the city; it was as if Timothy had materialized on the highway that day out of thin air, coming to disrupt this unsuspecting family in a suburban neighborhood.  

She wanted to believe that her many missions trips, her raising money for the poor, her contact with difficult student cases in the public schools, and her general kindness and love would make it easy to show God’s love to those who needed it the very most.  But she had been wrong.  She had never felt less capable than in this moment, standing in the kitchen alone with this man, this stranger.  Anger and frustration were the closest emotions she could grasp then, and she held on tightly, avoiding eye contact, silently cursing her husband, the system, and all of her own inadequacies.  

“Let’s go sit on the porch,” she suggested feebly, attempting to extricate herself from the claustrophobia-inducing kitchen corner.

“I need to go to the library,” he gave as his answer, repeating for emphasis, “I need to go to the library.”  

Here was her out; she responded over-eagerly, “Great idea! I can’t leave right now, but it is a short walk.  Do you remember how to get there?”  Short was a relative term here.  In the week or two that she had known Timothy, he had walked miles every day, sometimes downtown to meet with a caseworker, sometimes across town because he saw something interesting in the paper and wanted to check it out.  The library was actually a few miles away, but a straight enough shot that he would be unlikely to get lost, and a safe enough walk that she wouldn’t wonder about him returning.

After a quick recitation and repetition of the directions, told with the same care that you tell a 5-year-old to accomplish a task, Timothy set off.  His loping gait that made the neighbors uncomfortable was visible all the way down the neighborhood street.  In the freedom of the moment, watching him walk away without feeling his piercing eyes, wondering what he was thinking, she could feel it.  The discomfort of the situation gave way to genuine concern and care, but a concern and care that felt the inevitability of defeat.  Timothy was not a child; he could not be adopted; he could not stay indefinitely in the tent out back.  There had already been fierce arguments with family and neighbors (and herself) over the safety and propriety of a middle-aged, mentally unstable stranger in such close proximity to the children they were entrusted to care for first.  It felt hopeless; the redemption of the situation seemed beyond human involvement.  

And in that moment, as Timothy walked into the distance, she felt it.  The privilege that she was born into that could not be passed through that invisible barrier to this other human, equally as deserving, perhaps more desperate in his need for it.  And then the frustration turned inward.  She couldn’t pass on privilege, but she could refuse to allow privilege to make her a hoarder of security and grace. She could fight for Timothy and help his cause. She could share a pork chop sandwich.

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