“Can vitamins be bought with food stamps?” she asked rather than answering. “You know, since they’re dietary supplements and all?”
She'd come into our store numerous times: with her tiny blond girls and her husband with the strange tattoos on the back of his neck, these blue eyes so frozen over with anger they look like ice. The wife often limps, but I know it is not from a deformity because sometimes she comes in and can walk just fine. Those times her feet do not seem so leaden, her shoulders not so curved with a weight too heavy for her small frame to bear.
“No, ma’am,” I said. “I’m sorry…we can only do food.”
The woman -- just a girl, really -- nodded and looked down.
Wordlessly, I rang up her raviolis and macaroni and cheeses, her Hamburger Helpers and cans of chunk light tuna. What kind of place is she going home to? I wondered. She must work somewhere since she’s always wearing scrubs and asking about vitamins shows that she does care. But does her husband care for her? Does he beat her, or is she just accident prone? Perhaps she injures herself lifting patients at work? I tried soothing my conscience with these thoughts, these questions, and when she exited through the front door with her small bag of items -- her dirty blond head lowered to buffer against the cold -- I found myself lifting up this woman in prayer, even thought I did not know her name.
I first heard about author River Jordan’s resolution last winter. In 2009, when both her sons were facing deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, River chose to forsake her own fears by embracing the challenge of praying for a stranger a day. Over the next 12 months, River had so many unique encounters with her “stranger” of the day that her husband encouraged her to write them down. The result was a compilation of inspirational stories called Praying for Strangers that will be gracing shelves this spring.
I was deeply challenged by River’s resolution. How many times had my imagination conjured forth a story for every person I passed, yet I did nothing but sit there and form plots in my mind and put words in their mouths that they would probably never say? How much harder would it be to actually pray for a stranger -- if only in my mind -- rather than just pondering the unique details in their lives or asking them questions that would bring forth the answers I wanted to hear? That would make the story more interesting to later tell?
So I decided to try praying for a stranger at least a few times a week. Oftentimes, my prayers were not flowery or long. I would just see an elderly husband trying to help his equally elderly wife into their Oldsmobile or a teenager dressed in black and bristling with more self-hatred than earrings, and a prayer would form in my mind or pass through my lips.
One day a man came into our store whose legs were the size of stovepipes. This is not my usual penchant for hyperbole. The poor man had to wear sweatpants, his legs were that swollen. Even then, they pressed against the gray material, and the few inches of skin squishing out between his sweatpant band and elastic socks were an unnatural, striped magenta. Still, he shuffled around the store in his stretched out slippers and helped his wife pick up heavier items and put them into their cart, desperately trying to get his ailing body to do what it once had without effort or thought.
By the time they came up to pay, the man had to sit down. He was huffing and puffing as if he’d just sprinted 10 miles up hill. His florid face was sheened in sweat. I was honestly worried that he might pass out or away right then and there. But after a few minutes, his color receded and cheerful disposition came back. He chatted with us as we bagged up their items and flirted with his wife in a way that brought tears to my eyes.
Before they left, I suddenly realized: There’s my stranger! But although I wanted to say a prayer for him, I wouldn’t have minded if he’d have said one for me as well; for surely someone who's shuffled his way through life and yet every step made is seen as a monument rather than a millstone is worthy of praying for a stranger far more than I.
So, before we embark on these holidays that send us hurtling into a new year, it would be wise to remember that although some of us will spend that time in a mad sprint and others in a pained shuffle, we are on this journey of life together; and we should help each other keep walking on.
The beautiful image above can be found here.