What Money Couldn’t Buy

What Money Can't Buy

Good morning friends!

What do you think of when you think of the word, “poverty”? Have you experienced it? Do you know someone who is struggling, or are you struggling yourself? Maybe you don’t know what real poverty is, and that’s okay too. Perhaps the only kind of poverty you have experienced came through the lens of the television screen and the media.

I am just going to lay it out on the table: I grew up with privilege. There’s probably a more “politically correct” or eloquent way to spin my words so that I don’t seem like I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth, but that would be a lie. I did.

I’ve been ruminating on the question: how can I serve those around me? Where are the poor in my life, and how can I help them? Reflecting on my own outlook, it seems I view serving the poor as a situation where I, a financially comfortable individual, seek out the poor (or my idea of the poor) — the people on the street begging for change with no roof over their head — and then offer them something material such as money or food to help them survive.

It’s a very divisive way to look at it, almost like a “me” vs. “them.” Aren’t we all human? Aren’t we all the same, at our core? I know my outlook needs to change, and I’m praying that God helps me break down that barrier, while still being able to use my financial abundance to help those around me. Because let’s be real, is it really service if you just throw money at someone as you pass them by on the street? Where is the love? Where is the acknowledgement that we are in this thing called life together, even if our circumstances separate us? I want to look someone in the eye and give them what they truly need, and it might be something different than what I think they need. But I digress… I have a specific story I want to share with you, sweet friend.

This weekend, I visited a grocery store in a different part of town.  It wasn’t necessarily where I felt comfortable going, but I had other errands to run in the area so I figured I would kill two birds with one stone. I leisurely made my way around the store, collecting items on my list, as well as throwing a few extra things in the cart, because why not?

All the cashier lanes had lines except one, so naturally I followed the path of least resistance (and least impatience) and unloaded my items onto the conveyor belt.

After a few moments passed, I asked the cashier how his day had been going. He responded, “It was good. But then I got a text, and now I am depressed.” While I was helplessly searching for the right thing to say, he continued, “I have less than $50 in my bank account.” He paused, “I mean, I guess I know why…” Then, his mouth spread into a wide grin, a sparkle in his eye as if he had a secret, “But I have money in my pocket!” His demeanor suggested that the bank not knowing about his secret stash of cash in his pocket was a good thing.

I felt completely powerless to help him. I offered whatever words I could, trying to maintain a cheerful exterior even though inside my heart was breaking for him. What could I do? I wanted the awkwardness to pass, even though he seemed comfortable and not depressed at all.

And then an answer to my prayers: a third party.

A young woman came to help me bag my groceries. She asked if I was from California, noting my reusable bag from the grocery store, Ralph’s. I explained that my sister lives there and that I had picked up the bag as a souvenir (dork moment, I know, not ashamed) while visiting her this summer, at which the cashier perked up and asked whereabouts. I told him, and he mentioned his aunt works at Scripps Institute of Oceanography as a seismologist, and that his sister lives out there with her too. I explained that I had heard of Scripps, and we talked a little bit about my work as an ocean modeler.

He said his sister was a biochemist, and he made a joke that she must have been hiding her genius because he had always achieved a higher GPA than her in high school. It made me wonder what had happened that he was now seemingly broke and working at Kroger.

I wanted to help him. To give him the cash in my wallet, or something, anything. But I didn’t want to cross a boundary or offend him. What I should have said: How can I help you? Is there anything I can do for you? 

Our conversation was jovial, and it went on for some time, much to the dismay of the line that had begun to form behind me. As I pushed my fully loaded cart out of the automatic glass doors and into the grey and misty parking lot, I observed that something inside me had been changed. I felt as though I made a few new friends, when I had least expected it.

Now, looking back on it, perhaps I wasn’t meant to offer him something material to “help him.” Perhaps he was the one who was helping me.

You see, I had spent the majority of that day alone, and that conversation had replenished a little of my own poverty, the kind that money can’t buy.

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