After walking out of Kohl’s tonight, the Far-Away Sparkette (who is not so far away right now) was buckling GrandSpark 2 in his car seat while I was putting our purchases into the back of her van. I was thumping around back there, loading a box and a large crinkly bag onto the floor, when I heard the Sparkette speak to me.
“Uh…mom?” I could tell by her tone that something was a bit off. “Someone is asking if we have any extra change.”
I hadn’t heard anyone speak, so I poked my head around the side of the van and sure enough, there stood a small woman with many layers of dirty, mismatched clothing. Everything about her screamed “homeless”. It took her about half a second to start talking, explaining herself.
“I just need a little change so I can get an iced tea. I promise I’m not on drugs or anything. I’ve got a mental illness and I just want iced tea.”
She may or may not have had any teeth. Saliva ran down her chin and every word she spoke was punctuated by flying spit. And boy howdy, did she talk a lot.
“I don’t drink or use drugs. I promise. I’ve got a mental illness. I just wanted to get some iced tea over at the Hardee’s.”
“You just want some tea?” I asked.
“I’ll get you some tea. You want sweet tea?”
“Yes, I like sweet.”
“Are you hungry?”
She blinked. “Yes.”
“Do you like hamburgers?”
“Oh, YES!” She seemed amazed that this was going so well for her.
“What do you like on them?”
“EVERYTHING!” she said enthusiastically.
“Alrighty…a hamburger with everything and a sweet tea it is, then.” She threw her arms around me and thanked me, overjoyed at the prospect of a meal. I smiled at her and turned to walk next door to the Hardee’s, telling the Sparkette to just meet me in the parking lot over there.
The little woman decided to really go for broke. “Can I have a big one?”
“Sure.” I hadn’t even considered getting her a small one, actually, but that is when I knew that she was either very hungry, or she had someone she would share that burger with. I figured to throw some fries into the deal. She started to walk beside me, chattering the entire way, most of it making little sense. Mental illness, indeed.
“You sure are nice,” she slurred and spat.
“Well, Jesus loves you, and I want to be sure that everyone He loves has their needs met,” I said simply.
“Hmm. Well, that is true,” she said.
She told me that they didn’t like her to come into the restaurant, and that she would wait for me on the curb between Kohl’s and Hardee’s. I asked her for her name, but she said she’d tell me that when I came back.
I walked into the Hardee’s and ordered a hamburger meal with sweet tea. They were out of sweet tea and I could tell they really wanted me to choose something else, though they offered to make it if I wanted to wait. I asked how long, and they said two minutes. What they meant was more like fifteen minutes, but I didn’t have that information up front, and the little woman said she wanted sweet tea, so I figured she should have the dignity of being given her beverage of choice. I asked them to go ahead and make the tea.
I waited at the counter for a while, and suddenly she was at my elbow. She immediately began to defend her presence in the place, loudly announcing that I was a Christian and I was buying the meal for her. There were no other customers there, but it was clear the employees were annoyed, though they did not treat her rudely. She complained loudly about every past offense committed against her– workers throwing out her tray when she stepped out to have a cigarette, people accusing her of things she hadn’t done. I watched as the counter became splattered with sprays of spit as she got herself more and more worked up. I occasionally would say something soothing to her, and for a moment she would calm, but within moments she would begin ranting again, announcing her mental illness and complaining about perceived offenses. I was starting to get quite a spit shower myself.
The Sparkette and GrandSpark came in the door, obviously curious as to why this was taking so long. Ugh. How long does it take to brew some tea? This was way more than two minutes.
As she rambled on and on, I turned and took stock of her. She was small and thin, her hair was pushed up under a knit cap. She wore a jacket over many layers of shirts, and a dirty pair of capri jeans that came just below her knees, leaving her shins bare. She had on socks and a pair of sneakers. Her lips were chapped from the constant flow of drool down her chin. She had watery blue eyes and her voice was loud and deep and raspy, as if she’d smoked for about 60 years, though I didn’t smell any cigarette smoke on her and I was pretty sure she wasn’t that old anyway. I thought a caught a subtle whiff of alcohol, but I wasn’t sure. Not that it mattered. She was hungry, and I had enough money to see that she was fed. I might not be able to feed all of the homeless of Fort Walton Beach, but I could feed this one.
Eventually the tea was ready and they poured her a cup and handed me a bag. I asked the woman if she’d like ketchup, and she said yes. The employee, obviously the manager on duty, politely asked how many packets she would like, and she said four. I gave her the bag and the tea and got her a straw from the counter. She thanked me again.
I smiled at her again. “Be blessed,” I said, putting a hand on her shoulder. And then she slipped out the door and was gone.
Sparkette and I walked to the van. “I’m glad you did that,” she said.
“It’s a cold night in Fort Walton Beach to be homeless,” I replied.
I could see the woman hightailing it far across the parking lot. I hoped the meal would fill her belly. I also hoped the memory of someone blessing her and feeding her would crowd out some of the memories of being mistreated. But I felt a little unsettled, too. I don’t believe in a “social gospel”. I just believe in the gospel. I believe the good news that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and that there is a Healer who doesn’t differentiate between a broken mind and a broken arm. Was it enough to tell her Jesus loves her and give her a fast food meal? Was it enough to be unoffended and unperturbed by the nonsensical chattering and ranting, the spit and the drool and the smell? Did she recognize it as love? Did those workers?
And the truth is, I don’t know. But as long as He did, then I guess I can leave it Him to make that count however it needs to count.