I picked the wrong check-out lane at the grocery store today. A scrawny young man was ahead of me with just an orange box… 24 bags of Ramen Noodles and a 2-liter of off brand mountain dew. He was almost finished. I would be in and out of Orchard Market (known as, Fruitport Foods to the locals) in no time.
At first I assumed he was a college student. He wore scuffed up white sneakers and dirty jeans, but he smiled to the cashier the whole time… He looked up at the total on the screen…smiled, apologized and asked the clerk politely to start taking bags of Ramen off the order one by one. I watched several people get right through their check-out lane and my instant response was impatience. Except the young man wasn’t a college student. As he watched the total go back down….1…2…3….4…5…6 bags of Ramen were removed from the box. The cashier called the manager to make the order change.
We waited… the line grew behind me… my eyes welled up….I took a deep breath… and the young man smiled at me and apologized to everyone in line. He thanked the cashier for her accommodation, apologized to the manager for the inconvenience. He swiped his card still smiling and once again thanked me for being patient. He gave a thank you wave, walked out. I hastily paid…sniffling…and hurried out to the parking lot, looking to see if he got in a car, walked toward the road or hopped on a bike. There he was kneeling next to his bike, ferociously shoving the box of Ramen into his backpack alongside the 2 liter.
His name is Ryan. He lives in a one room cabin with his brother. His mom lives across from him… in a one room cabin. They live among a group of one room cabins in Fruitport. I know exactly where Ryan lives. I’ve driven by those one room “cabins” hundreds of times, mostly as a kid. I used to kink my neck gazing out the window as we drove by wondering who could live in such a tiny shack with plastic covered windows – a place smaller than my bedroom? Where did they put the bathroom? Where is the stove? The refrigerator? Ryan lives there. He eats Ramen. He buys it for his mom. He has a bike. He smiles a lot. He’s overly polite and extremely friendly.
How can a young man with so little have so much joy? I wept on the drive home. Was I crying for Ryan? He didn’t seem like he had anything to cry about. Maybe I was crying for myself… the guilt I felt because I didn’t get on my knees today and thank God for the car and two bedrooms I have, the refrigerator, the fresh produce in the fridge, the running water and clean sheets. Maybe I was crying because I was thankful that I picked the wrong grocery line.
For the last four days I’ve been driving 45 minutes back and forth from downtown Grand Rapids where I work. I walk past homeless people – dozens of homeless people – in my building every day. People need help and hope in Grand Rapids, and people need help and hope in my cozy little town on the Lakeshore. Poverty is not just a Grand Rapids/big city issue, it’s everyone’s issue, and all of God’s children deserve to have dignity.
I recently left my job at Grand Valley State University and several people have questioned my choice to leave GVSU for my new position at Mel Trotter Ministries. Mel Trotter is a ministry that exists to demonstrate the compassion of Jesus Christ toward the hungry, homeless and hurting of the greater Grand Rapids area of Michigan. Many close to me have called my move a “risk,” an “unstable,” “unsafe” and “frustrating” environment. Some have even told me they don’t think I should have left Grand Valley at all.
At first I was offended, but I know now that I am and will be a living testimony to those people. I’m learning that there is no risk in following God’s plan for my life, and furthermore there is nothing unstable about surrendering to God’s will. I am determined not to miss out on an opportunity to demonstrate compassion and love to my brothers and sisters because of fear or being uncomfortable.
“If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person? Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God.” – 1 John 3:17-19
I will start going to Orchard Market more often. I will be looking for Ryan and looking to discover and understand the source of his joy. In the meantime, I have a personal goal to keep my eyes wide, my heart open, and maybe step into the wrong check-out line again….very soon.
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