I generally think and write about social issues at a macro level–national and international affairs–so the following experience is out of my comfort zone. I also don’t usually talk to people I see holding signs asking for help; it’s not my preferred location for aid. But yesterday was a little different. Here’s a reflection I wrote last night. Grace and peace, Jeff
“Everyone’s got a hidden agenda; watch them push it on you. Everyone’s got a hidden agenda; don’t pretend not to.” –John Reuben, “Sales Pitch” on Boy vs. The Cynic
I talked to three people this afternoon. The first two were at Tim Horton’s, where I was reading while my wife was at work. An older gentleman asked if he could sit at my table while we ate our lunches. I obliged, surprised by but appreciative of his extroversion. We talked for at least 45 minutes, maybe an hour. It was pleasant chatting about his days as a teacher and his pride in being a grandpa. All was well… until he sprung the sales pitch about the Internet company he is working with now. “People are making a lot of money in this. I’ve got a website where you can watch my intro video, and then the next step is to arrange a meeting with others.”
Really?! That’s what this friendly banter is about? Just checking me out to see if I’ve “got what it takes” to join your money-making scheme. The conversation that had been odd but pleasant turned to dirt. I don’t want your marketing, Jerry!
The second conversation partner had come over to my table before Jerry had entered the restaurant. He had seen me reading and came over to ask about the book, Managing Intercultural Conflict Effectively. That led to questions about my peace studies program, and my World Vision bookmark triggered his brief personal testimony and two fist-bumps. “Hey can I come talk to you later?” he asked. “Sure, I’ll be here all afternoon,” I admitted.
As soon as Jerry left my table–I think I was still looking at his business card in disbelief–this guy was back, now inviting me over to his table on the other side of the restaurant. This never happened when I had a laptop instead of a book; lesson learned! I had been sitting behind a low wall that blocked my view of the room, but as I walked over I realized it was a mobile office with laptops and file folders. This extrovert introduced me to Stacey, a salesman who had no intention of wasting nearly an hour getting to know me before springing his business plan. “I just have a short video for you to watch on this money-making pyramid plan. Do you know how pyramid plans work?” I was caught off-guard, but was quickly upset at this second scheme. Stacey’s friend didn’t care about me or peace, he just wanted me to like him so I’d come over and hear his pitch. I watched a few minutes and said I wasn’t interested.
Back at my original table, I was too bothered by these salesmen to concentrate on my book. Business pursuits have ruined their ability to just be friendly to people they pass in life. Their agenda is their lens, and it really dug at me.
I dropped off my book-bag at my wife’s office, and went for a walk. As I walked in the heat, I thought about how cheap the sales perspective had made conversation, how thin it had made human interaction. As a Christian, it made me think about how I’ve sold God sometimes, even when I was doing something “good” like spending the summer as a literature evangelist. Instructions: A. Hold the first book–a neutral cookbook–in a way that they have to adjust the angle to see the cover. B. As they adjust the cookbook, let go so it’s in their hands. C. Now that they’re holding the intro book, the follow-up sales pitch on the religious books is that much easier.
There were also the times working at the language school when I acted friendly and started conversations just to build trust for the “more important” conversations. As an introvert, I don’t reach out to people naturally, only when I have a “witnessing” agenda. At least if you do this in the church setting, people know what’s going on. If you do it on the street, it’s a sucker punch.
My mind drifted to Donald Miller’s sermon on selling God (God is Fathering Us); it suddenly came close to home (ha, look a sales pitch, $2). I also thought about Donald’s commitment to just love people, and if they brought up God, then he’d talk about it. No more sales. No more being nice to people just so they’d listen to his line. You can read an excerpt here (PDF).
As I continued to walk along the construction zone that was previously a road, I noticed someone up ahead. She was at the next light, waiting to cross. The main thing I saw was an army duffel bag worn as a backpack. It was way too hot to carry that for fun; I was intrigued. She crossed the street before I got to her, and I could have still crossed, but I didn’t have any reason to talk to her, so I kept walking. And looking back. She was walking slowly so I easily outdistanced her on my side of the road. I crossed the single lane of traffic that was still allowed through the construction so I was back on her side of the road. As I walked up to her I asked, “If I promise not to try to sell you anything, can I walk with you for a bit?”
That was when I realized how dirty she was and how many tattoos she had. The lip ring was cool. Really. I think she was maybe in her late teens or early twenties. It was clear that she was strong but vulnerable. She had no attitude; no tough stance. She was tired. With almost no emotion except for maybe a hint of either skepticism or resignation (maybe I was just looking too hard for clues), she accepted. Kaylee didn’t want any help carrying her pack, but she allowed me to walk her to the corner where she planned to hold up her sign asking for help.
Kaylee was homeless. Her boyfriend and two dogs were waiting back downtown. I presumed she could make more money alone than with them around. They were in the process of moving South to find work. Her boyfriend was in construction, and there isn’t much of that going on in Michigan. Someone had hit their truck, so they were without wheels. I presumed she was telling the truth. Maybe it was sales pitch number three. No matter, I didn’t have much to give, and I didn’t offer anything.
I left her at her desired corner and walked on in the heat, thinking about what Jesus would say or do if he were there. He had an agenda, but not a sales pitch. He cared, and he spoke truth in love. I eventually walked back to talk to her some more. After a while I offered to get her something at the sandwich shop in the next block or from the grocery store behind her, but I admitted I didn’t have much, so she might be better off waiting there with her sign. We eventually agreed that when my wife came to pick me up to make the 75-minute drive home, we’d see if Kaylee was still there and then talk about it again. I left and waited in the grocery store for about an hour.
Kaylee was still at her corner when I returned. The only important part of that final episode for this reflection is that I got to talk to her awhile longer. She talked about what gives her hope. I sat in the grass and listened to her, thinking about how much more I enjoyed talking with her in the beating sun than those well-bathed salesmen back in the air-conditioned restaurant. As I was telling her about how much people had helped me and my wife when we were unemployed, a woman brought her a sandwich and walked over to the gas station and brought back water bottles for both of us. I like that lady. She didn’t have a pitch for either Kaylee or me–no advice, no guilt, no Bible lesson–just cold bottles of water. And in the end, it was Kaylee who brought up God, entreating a blessing on the two of us.
Dear God, Please bless Kaylee and her boyfriend tonight in ways none of the rest of us can. And I hope you’ll bless Jerry and the other salesman too. They need you just as much.