I'll see you tomorrow - News from Emily working in a grocery store

Emily at workEmily at workEmily made her first vows on May 8 this year. She had most recently been working at a local grocery store, and she shared her experience.

Christ's life in Nazareth is a supreme example of his saving love working in secret, through the realities of everyday life. A key that helps me live "our Nazareth" is a phrase from Mark's story of the rich young ruler: "Jesus looked upon him and loved him." (Mk 10:21) So much can be transmitted in a single look. I think we are here, in our community, because we have been looked upon with love by Christ. And now He is looking out through us, wherever we are.

I've been working in ALDI Food Market for the past four months. Here, efficiency, productivity, and speed are the driving forces for the business. The company hires fewer, more productive and versatile employees in order to take money they would be spending on wages and "put that money back in the customer's pocket" by keeping prices low.

When I first started, I felt overwhelmed by pressure to be a good worker by ringing as quickly as possible at the cash register in order to keep the lines down and please my co-workers. This pressure came in part from knowing a computer was counting how many products I scanned an hour, including how long I took between customers. I felt like I didn't have time to notice people, let alone talk with them.

This particular ALDI is a seven minute walk from home, so the people I see in the store are from the neighborhood. When we see each other on the street, we feel like we already know each other, which is wonderful. It is the only grocery store in the immediate area, and many people depend on the low prices to be able to feed their families. Our customers are mostly African-American, white working class, or Latino, but there's also an increasing population of Roma (Gypsies). All my co-workers are African-American, except one who is from Bosnia. Two are Muslim. Our boss is a white man.

One day when I was working in the freezer, I was on the verge of tears trying to work quickly in the cold, unable to find some¬thing I was looking for. My co-worker Marie came to help me. Marie is strong and sweet. She doesn't let anything get to her. She always seems calm, cheerful, and available for people. She came into the freezer that day, took the box of chicken wings from me, threw it up on the shelf as if it were a box of Kleenex, and said, "Oh, don't worry, baby. Just remember this is a job, not a career."

I couldn't believe she said this. A few years ago I had written an article for Commonweal magazine about our community's spirituality of work, and my transition from nursing to cleaning airplanes, and the title of the article was "A Job, Not a Career." Of course she'd never seen this article, but God was using her to remind me that presence is far more valuable than performance. I didn't feel like I was doing anything special, let alone Christian, there at the cash register. Looking at the long lines of people rushing and being rushed, I thought, "Maybe I'm just supposed to share this fight to remain human. Maybe I'm here just to share this." But there was more... God was trying to get me past my fear of not being fast enough or good enough, and I felt him gazing on me with tenderness. I began to look up at people with tenderness, the same tenderness I imagine is in the gaze of Jesus. The lines were still long, the interactions brief and blurred, but something truly wonderful happened. I found that when I went home and was in the chapel praying, if I closed my eyes the many faces I'd taken in surfaced in my memory as if God was loving those souls towards a clarity that was beyond my perception, yet was happening in me. "Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face..." (Ps 24).
A young black man (probably 13 or 14) was coming into our store with great regularity. Like many teenagers he was awkward and aloof, but each time he came into my line I tried to treat him like an adult, comment on what he was buying, ask what his mom was making for dinner, just little things like that. One day before turning around to leave he looked at me with a light in his eyes and said, "I'll see you tomorrow!" As he walked out the door I thought how this young man had just summed up Nazareth.

Seeing the same people day to day creates the anticipation of "seeing them tomorrow." The young girl who always asks if she can give me a hug. The young woman who stutters. The homeless man who always buys two little cherry pies. The elderly woman who bakes for the neighborhood kids. The Latino man who tries to teach me Spanish. The transvestites who seem so sad. The college-aged entrepreneur who buys three cases of beef for his taco stand (I would often tell other customers about his restaurant and catch him beaming.) The woman who, when I asked "How are you?" told me her son had just died of an overdose. The grouchy, racist man, always covered in paint, who cursed at me (later on I asked him if we could "start over" and he shook my hand.) The woman who said, "I'll never forget that you talk to me like a human being..."

Behind the register, I think how Christ described himself in the Eucharist as "given for the many." In order to remain "given," I realize how important it is not to be "taken" by the praise of kind customers, or the insults of rude ones.
Serafim with a bearSerafim with a bearWhen the Russian Saint Seraphim of Sarov said, "Acquire a calm and gentle spirit and around you thousands will be saved," he was talking about acquiring the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ. Do I really believe that this Spirit can be transmitted in a look, smile, or a word of tenderness? Can I trust that God takes the offering of my life and does what He wishes (often in secret) with this gift? Since God desires the salvation of all people, can I accept that my offering might, in Him, lead to salvation for some stranger?

I close with a beautiful story from Monday of Holy Week. It was around supper time, and I'd been on the register for several hours. I was about to take my break when my co-worker Darlene told me that the security guard was in our break room holding a man he'd caught stealing. When I walked in I saw a very thin, miserable-looking man hunched over, handcuffed to a chair. The guard was saying to him, "I just knew when you came into the store you were going to steal!" I asked the man if he wanted a bottle of water or a granola bar, but he said no. I felt bad eating my dinner in front of someone who was being arrested for stealing food. When I asked the security guard what the man had taken, he pointed to a single package on the table, "That's it, just a seven-dollar steak." Picking up the steak, I told the man in handcuffs I was going to buy it for him. The room became silent. Looking at this poor man, I said gently, "But from now on, only do good." He answered me, "I'm done stealing now."

Then the guard asked me, "Why did you do that?" I simply said that I didn't always live the life I'm living now, but someone had showed me mercy and given me a second chance in life. When the police came half an hour later I was already back on the register. The man emerged from the break room, with a completely different look on his face. He had the steak in his now freed hands.