She stood outside VONS quietly; her dark eyes scanning the faces of entering customers. Her hands were callused and worn and, though still young, her eyes were crowned with countless wrinkles. A lanky boy, perhaps twelve or thirteen, stood beside her distracting the sniffling toddler in the broken stroller. His arms and legs had grown faster than his eyes; he had the stature of a man, but the youthful awkwardness of a curious, confused kid. The little family stood outside of the grocery store humbled and penniless, but strangely dignified.
Walking up, hurried and checking my bank account balance on my phone, I immediately noticed them. My intuition exploded with an unexplainable sense of compassion and urgency. They had said nothing, but something was wrong. There was pain behind those eyes. Her eyes were strong. Achingly resolute. I’d seen that too many times in an all too personal past.
“Are you okay?” I said softly, walking closer.
“No.” She bluntly responded, waiting for the familiar distancing and apathetic retreat into blithe god blesses and well-wishing. Her eyes relaxed just slightly when I didn’t leave. “My kids haven’t eaten and I have no money. Do you think you could get us some bread? Maybe some tuna?”
I brought her out two bags of incredibly basic groceries. Bread, tuna, bottled water, apples, grapes, and a couple protein bars...all I could afford and still afford gas on the way home.
As I handed them to her, she looked up with those strong, resolute eyes. “I said a prayer this morning”, she stated. “A prayer of HU”. She continued, in a few short words, to explain that in her religion - Eckankar - the prayer helps believers draw closer to the Divine Being, help them experience divine love, offer solace in times of grief, and bring peace in overwhelming situations. She had prayed for food, and here I was with two bags of groceries in tow.
“God answers prayer” she said, staring into my eyes.
I’ve heard that my whole life, but today my conversation with this unnamed hungry, struggling, devout woman shook my theology anew. Christians claim this all the time. Tithe and god will reward your sacrifice. Honor Him and He will bless you. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and he will make your path straight. If His eye is on the sparrow, how much more on the believer? God answers prayers.
But this is not singular to Christians or the Protestant/Catholic faith. The Palestinian refugees in Baqa’a refugee camp in Jordan looked me in the eye and told me how Allah continued to provide for them. How good and just and patient he was. The witch doctor in Jamaica who stood outside our clinic and rattled crow bones spoke of the mysterious love of her god. My burmese refugees at the IRC prayed before each meal, thanking their god for the continued blessing of food to eat and a roof over their head...eyes often filled with grateful tears. And now here was this Eckankari believer reassuring me that I was being used by her god to answer her prayers. These religions have incredibly different, and usually maintain conflicting doctrines. They ask different things, require different faiths, and promise different rewards. But whether you believe in Jesus, Allah, a Divine Being, or a multi-armed goddess... “god provides”. Interesting.
I believe there is a god. I do. I believe there is transcendent, supreme being that exists beyond human imagination and understanding who created the world and set it into motion. I believe that this god resides somewhere out there, watchful and omniscient.
Given that, 1) I don’t believe this god has a real name or a real “truth” held by an select, informed percentage of the globe...whoever or wherever that may be. I think that all of humanity recognizes a deep, innate need for an omnipotent source of justice and explanation, and that this source is manifested in the unexplainable, all-present divine spirit that is, at once, the fount of love and wrath. The colorful corners of the world has their own explanation, their own spiritual history and narrative, their own justification of history, their own interpretation of right, wrong, morality, and truth. And depending on who I buy groceries for, I’m being used by Jesus, Allah, Krishna or any number of other divine beings. It’s relative, but in my mind, I just want to make sure this family is less hungry at the end of the day.
Which brings me to my second point, 2) how much is “god” and how much is “man”? If I have equal chance of being used by whichever god the recipient of my good-will chooses to believe in, how much of my benevolence springs just from the simple fact that I want to help? Your kids didn’t eat today. Here are some groceries. Perhaps that’s whatever god you’d like to call him/her/it working through me, or perhaps it’s just that I’m a person with a heart.
This isn’t a “yay me, I’m a saint” rant. It's a confession of someone who can talk the talk, who's done the apologetics, highlighted her bible, memorized the verses, but who finds the whole experience rather hollow in the grand scheme of things. In my own, limited, experience...I've been cared for, loved by, and survived because of individual people who have gone out of their way to provide.