As the median age in my home is currently 16, I was the only one awake last Saturday morning at 7:00. I decided to make the most of the time and go grocery shopping.
Grocery shopping at 7 a.m. on a Saturday, as it turns out, is pretty sweet. Hardly anyone was in the store. I meandered around for a while, picked up a few things and then made my way toward the blessedly short checkout line to pay for my groceries.
Waiting with my mind running through a list of things I needed to get done, I wasn’t paying much attention to what was going on around me. But as I stood there in line I began to overhear a conversation going on at the checkout counter.
In front of me in line was a Caucasian young man, probably in his early 20s, wearing a tank top, jeans and combat boots. He had an impressive array of tattoos and piercings and looked pretty rough around the edges.
He was talking intensely to the checker, an African-American woman in her mid-60s, impeccably made up and about as respectable-looking as they come.
I took notice when the young man asked the woman how she was doing. It didn’t sound like an offhand “How’s it going?” but seemed that he really wanted to know.
To my surprise the woman behind the counter teared up and began to give him a pretty detailed report on a tough situation in her marriage, all the while scanning and bagging groceries.
The young man listened and nodded, asking thoughtful questions and reaching out to pat the woman’s arm when her story got too hard to tell. When she choked up and had to stop scanning groceries, he pulled out a Kleenex to offer her as he stepped behind the counter and enfolded her in a hug. They stood there for a few moments, while he patted her back and she cried.
After a few moments, the woman managed to pull herself together, finish the grocery order and send the young man on his way. “You take care,” he said as he left. “I’ll be thinking about you.”
She must have seen the stunned look on my face as I stepped up next with my grocery order, because the woman looked at me and explained: “We’ve been friends for a while. He always comes through my line. Last year he was having a hard time and he would come in and tell me his troubles. He’s here for me now because I have some tough things going on in my life.”
I nodded as she spoke, and after I finished paying for my groceries and turned to leave, she said: “You know, we have to be here for each other. That’s what life’s all about. You have a good day.”
After returning to the car and loading my groceries, I sat there for a few minutes thinking about what I saw. And I thought: that’s what church should always be like.
A lot of people these days are pretty convinced that they don’t need the church. And, really, they don’t need what they think church is: an exclusive club filled with shiny, happy, self-righteous people who all look like me and never say swear words.
But they do need connection. They need love and comfort and care. They need to know they are not alone. They need to know that there’s somebody else out there asking the big, hard questions of human life, too.
They need a place where tattoos and combat boots and the well-dressed and respectable ask each other “How are you?” and really mean it.
And we, the church, desperately need to be that kind of place.