While attending an out-of-town conference, I decided to take a walk around the area of town where the convention center was located. As I was walking on the sidewalk, a bag lady came toward me on her bicycle. She literally WAS a bag lady, there must have been 8 stuffed plastic grocery bags dangling from the handlebars of her bicycle. It was quite the sight to behold. For all I could tell, a clown that had escaped from the circus was approaching me.
As she neared me, I stepped off the sidewalk onto the grass to allow her to pass. It seemed pretty obvious to me that she was a homeless woman, probably emotionally ill, with long, straggly hair and many teeth missing. My quick judgement of her placed her on the margins of society, probably degraded, and left on the forgotten dung heap of society. The irony of this was her passing the resort where I was staying. Although most of those at the conference were working for the church, the cost of the stay was high, even with the discount for conference attenders. Was she about to fill her bags with the “crumbs from the rich man’s table?”
As she passed me I looked directly into her eyes. “Thank you very much,” she said, without returning my gaze. “I appreciate it.” I was astounded by her gratitude. How could she be so grateful when she had so little? Do people usually make her go around them, upsetting her balance, perhaps deriding her with a sneer and scorn? Was it because I looked at her in the eye and recognized her as a human being giving her a moment of dignity in her wretched life?
The other irony in the story is that the theme of our conference was finding our spiritual place at the margins. That in spite of the borders that we build to keep others out, we are all one. That “God made us exactly as God wanted us to be.” Did God make the bag lady exactly as God wanted her to be, or was it the society in which she lived that pushed her to the margins and made her what she was? I wondered what would have happened if she had walked into the room where all us “spiritual” people were soaking up the wisdom.
Beyond those questions, as I said earlier, I was struck by her gratitude. Inside the walls of the conference I heard many participants talk about gratitude but also heard many complaints about services and scheduling. When we do not live on the margins it is so easy to feel entitled and deserving of a banquet rather than being grateful for the crumbs. We acknowledge our debt to God for our deliverance from slavery in Egypt, but we too soon become grumbling wanderers in the desert.
I came away from the conference with my soul filled with incredible wisdom from people of many denominations and many faiths. My heart sang in delight with insights for spiritual practices to enable ourselves and others to become more in touch with the One that unites us all. My cup was full and running over. But perhaps the profoundest lesson I will carry home with me is the simple statement of the bag lady. “Thank you. I appreciate it.”