(Transcribed from a letter to my mother dated 25 September 2007.)
This conversation yesterday with a co-worker astonished me.
“Peaches” is a 42-year old, very short woman, certainly a grandmother and very likely great-grandmother, who has about half her teeth. She works principally as a cashier, and is a really good worker and co-worker. She constantly teases me by pretending to flirt with me.
I was stocking the trash bags shelves, and became aware that she was in quite a pickle. Her shift was over, and she had appointments she had to keep at a certain time across town; but she also had assembled this bag full of items she needed to buy at once and before leaving the store. And the line at the cash register was quite long. (Long lines at cash register are a constant, intractable problem at this store.)
I told her facetiously, “Just go down there and push ’em all out.” She said, “No, that would be unmannerly, and that’s not like me.” (Conduct that can be called “unmannerly” is a big, big issue in this community, and a big issue for me personally since I see so much of it and find it offensive.) She went on: “Now, I like your manners. You speak to the customers …”
That’s the first of two points. Whether or not one “speaks to” someone is a major question of manners, here. And I alone among the cashiers routinely engage each customer in conversation, although some of the others are beginning to try to follow my example. At a minimum, I ask each one, “How are you?”, and state the total amount of the purchase, and finish with “Have a good evening,” no matter how testy the person may have become in the meantime.
For me, this isn’t just a matter of being nice. And although the conduct is, for me, automatic, it’s also not “just me.” It’s an expression of my religion, to recognize each and every person as a child of God — and act accordingly. It’s also, in this context, political and subversive: most of these individuals being highly disadvantaged African-Americans, to address any such one with dignity deconstructs, in however small a way, the “historical context” of American racism, and its effects.
For a lot of these folks (50%) it may also be the only decent, civil encounter she or he will have that day.
Peaches went on; now comes the second of the two points. I can’t quote her word for word now, since what she said totally “blew me away.” But she said that in situations of conflict I am prone to show up, somehow get the participants to back off from hostility, and then help them find resolution.
I cannot believe she would refer to some incident she had not personally seen; but the one such incident most memorable to me occurred prior to her being hired. So, unknown to me, she’s seen this. Peace-making.
Creation of shalom.
I have been much saddened, a feeling of “the well’s run dry,” over this community’s dire need and unresponsiveness to the Gospel; that maybe my goodwill and my prayers are all wasted. And here comes this woman and informs me that, unknown to me, my “ministry” here is having effect. I am engaged in, and she named it, the ONE THING I most want to be about in this life.
Unknown little stock clerk at a no-account dollar store.
It felt really good to be told this.
Peace-making. Of all the possible activities one can engage in, all my life this is what I’ve most wanted to do; apparently, I am doing it. And I really have nothing better to do.