I sat in the parking lot of Aldi reciting my name, contact information, and household income to the woman on the phone. Two impatient, squirmy boys sat strapped in car seats in the back of my small sedan as I tried to keep my voice steady. “Umm…when is your next available appointment? April 26? Yes, that’s fine.” I had just scheduled an appointment with the office for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) on the day of my 29th birthday. I forced back the hot tears that sprang to my eyes as my ever-insightful toddler would sense right away that Mommy was “sad,” and tried to imagine a more depressing scenario than spending the morning of my birthday applying for government assistance.
Before I resigned to become a stay-at-home parent, I had spent the last three years working for a Foodbank coordinating farmers’ markets for low-income families. The unspoken job requirement was that I had to coach people on how to suspend judgment. I had to meet disdain and anger toward people “mooching” off taxpayer dollars, with compassion, understanding and the idea that you truly never know what someone else is experiencing. So if ever there was someone who believed in federal assistance programs as a security net for our nation’s most vulnerable, it would be me. If ever there was someone who could make a case for WIC and the nutritional education and assistance it provides to pregnant women, infants, and children under five, it was me. If ever there was someone who believed there was no shame in asking for a lifeline, it should have been me. And yet, in making that call, I felt about two inches tall.
I was supposed to be the person helping low-income families. I was not supposed to be the person in a low-income family. I was supposed to be an intelligent, educated woman with a working knowledge of “the system.” Not the woman who had to ask at least five clarifying questions about what forms of documentation I needed to bring to my appointment. I was clothed in shame and embarrassment that my family was poor.
And herein lies the truth of being humbled right out of my comfort zone: I think it was necessary. Sympathy does little for a woman selling herself to provide for her children. Sympathy does little for someone who was just fired for missing a shift because they didn’t have money to fill their gas tank. Sympathy does little for a man on a corner asking for change.
Perhaps this is why Jesus insisted on spending his time with those in suffering. “Helping” from a distance is comfortable. It enables us to feel good about charitable acts of service without actually engaging with the person who is suffering. It is far more difficult to look into the eyes of someone in stress, pain, and suffering and say- “I’m so sorry. I’m right there with you and it never feels easier.”
Sitting in my cubicle scheduling produce distributions for hungry, impoverished neighbors sounded really good on paper. In actuality, it was somewhat gross. I got to play the savior for empty-bellied children, seniors, veterans, and refugees all the while delegating the responsibility of fellowshipping with them to someone else. The job was not the problem. My mentality was the problem. If I’m being honest, it gave me a feeling of superiority. I was a Pharisee looking down upon the least of these.
Until I was the least of these. I had to rifle through life documents, paystubs, and utility bills, just the same as the least of these. I had to entertain my two-year old and 7-month old for two hours in an office awash with fluorescent lighting. I had to sit on those same, worn-down chairs while complete strangers evaluated every last facet of my life and hope with all hope that they would tell me my cupboards would be a little less bare and my mortgage payment would be able to be made this month.
Sitting in the WIC office on my birthday was a lesson to me in what compassion looks like. Charity is giving to the suffering. Compassion, as Jesus modeled, is seeing the person behind the suffering. I don’t feel less ashamed to be asking for government assistance. But I can now look to the woman or man sitting beside me in the County Health Department and say, “I’m so sorry. I’m right there with you and it never feels easier.”
~Kaity Stuckert is a nonprofit professional turned stay-at-home-mom. A Hufflepuff, bookworm, and aspiring runner/home decorator. She believes in the curative powers of fresh air, dark chocolate, and counting her blessings.
Useful info from Kaity’s visit to the WIC office can be found on her blog, http://www.beeautifulblessings.com/2017/04/what-to-expect-at-your-first-wic.html#.WR0QblKZOHo