If a stranger knocked, would you answer?

Yesterday was a very gross, cold and rainy Saturday…and we were all perfectly content spending the afternoon indoors.  We heard a knock at the door, which set off our canine alarm system, as usual.  Knowing I didn’t have any amazon packages being delivered (for once), I was curious to see who it was. There stood two women, one looked to be around my age, and the other slightly older.  They both took a step back as my german shepherd poked his head through the door to check out the scenario. It was a reaction I was used to, but she then proceeded forward anyway. “Hi I’m Joanna*, have you heard about Worldwide Readers Inc. before?” OK, pause. No, I had not, but the typical questions were running through my head: “What did she want”, “What was she selling”, “Where did she come from”, “How long do I have to stand here to decline whatever she’s offering?”.  I did what most people do when they are skeptical of another person’s intentions: I had a very guarded attitude, avoided getting in a vulnerable position and kept the conversation very neutral. She continued, “I know you think I’m going to try to sell you something, or ask for money but please hear me out first. I’m a former heroine addict, have served 48 months in a correctional institute, and I’m trying to reform my life and get on a better path. This program allows me to work on my professional and interpersonal skills by going door to door to meet people like you”. She was selling magazines and books, but not for the customer’s consumption. These books and magazines were going to Ronald McDonald houses, halfway houses, centers for victims of domestic abuse etc. so that they would have literature to enjoy and learn.

She showed me a list of skills that she is working on with the help of this program, such as time management, responsibility, integrity, social interactions, accountability. “Do you have to use all these skills to get to where you are in your career and life?”, she asked me. I snobbishly thought “of course, how can you not have these skills as a professional”. She explained “I never had any of these skills, but I’m learning how to acquire and use them so that I can become a social worker one day”.  As an Occupational Therapist, we are involved in vocational rehabilitation, especially for those in mental health. We help to assess which professional and interpersonal skills a person may or may not have, and help them improve these skills to be able to function as a member of society in the workforce. So I had an idea of what type of program Joanna was in.

I was about ready to politely decline, and starting to think of an excuse or reason to give her. Maybe “I’m sorry but I’m busy right now”? No, that’s a lie, I had nothing else to do. “I would but I don’t trust you”, well that would just be too blunt and rude. Then my little toddler pushed past me to say hi. I watched these two women melt down to their knees with smiles so huge you would have thought he was their own. Joanna smiled “I have 6 kids, from 8 years to 16…they’re living with my family in Tennessee until I get my life together a little more and can support them. I miss them so much.” Sarah*, the other woman added, “I have a 7 year old, he’s with his dad right now but I can’t wait to see him again”. We talked about their families, their life stories. We talked about Joanna’s mother who died of a heroine overdose when she was 15.  Joanna was raised by her grandmother who died this year. Joanna recounted an abusive boyfriend who left her with black eyes until she finally walked out on him and entered this program a few short months ago.  I appreciated and respected their transparency and candidness. They weren’t trying to gain sympathy. They were proud of how far they had come and how motivated they were to keep succeeding.

I thought about the extensive book collection that Chase has on his shelf, how many kids are not blessed with a single book of their own to read, and decided to sponsor children’s books at these centers through the services that Joanna and Sara were offering. “I know just the place! I’ll give them to House of Ruth in DC”. She knew of this place because she once had been in a house for battered women and children.  She was barely out of the hole herself and she was trying to help those who were in the same situation.

My pastor at Alfred Street Baptist Church always challenges us with similar good samaritan type scenarios in his sermons: “If Jesus showed up at your doorstep, would you recognize Him?” This kept running through my head as I stood in my doorway for almost an hour talking to these two women. Here in front of me weren’t just two women who made poor decisions in life that lead them down a destructive path, but also two mothers, around my age, who were trying to reform their lives and in so doing leave their children in a better position to succeed. Yes, it’s easy to judge someone who is different from yourself, especially if they have made bad choices. I’ve been guilty of such biases many times, and I’m ashamed by that. Becoming a mom has softened my heart to folks in dire need, especially to those who share the responsibility of motherhood. Said women who may not have the same opportunities, or financial means to care for their children are high yield targets for any intervention designed to combat poverty. Helping them helps an entire family and has the potential to reverse generational trends that may have existed for decades. There is a Shakespearean line that, in summary, says, “the past doesn’t have to be prologue”. I refused to let these women’s past define their future. I gave them both hugs, and they both smiled and asked for me to pray for them.  That night, I emailed their supervisor to let them know what a great job these ladies are doing.  Jesse Jackson once said, “never look down on someone unless you are pulling them up”.

*Pseudonyms have been used to protect identity