Luzia was the only girl in the midst of five brothers—her two sisters came last. She demanded she be included in all of her brothers’ plans, but she still loved to play with dolls—the ones her mother would make using dry corn husks and corn silk. Always efficient, her mother would buy fabric to make identical clothes for her children and use the extra scraps to make clothes for the corn dolls. But that year, she’d heard a church close by would be doing a toy drive. She signed her family up—her daughter was getting a real doll.
The kids got dressed in the special clothes their mother had made for Christmas and walked to the church on the day of the gift drive. They stood in line and, with the same haircut and the same clothes, Luzia looked exactly like her brothers. When she got her wrapped gift, she held it close to her. She was almost floating on the walk home.
When it was finally time to open the boxes, the little girl could barely contain herself. She’d been dreaming of her new doll and imagining all the ways she would play with it. The boys tore at the wrapping paper while she slowly and carefully unwrapped hers. But as she unveiled her gift, her heart fell in dismay. It wasn’t a doll. It was a plastic truck like her brothers’.
Santa Claus had thought she was a boy. He hadn’t bothered to ask her parents to make sure, hadn’t bothered to give her a closer look.
My mother tells me this story from her childhood, and I still hear a thin layer of sadness beneath her words. I catch myself feeling angry at that Santa Claus, at that church. If they were truly there to help those in poverty, to make their Christmas better, shouldn’t they have tried a little harder?
When I was in fifth grade—three years after the big move from Brazil to Boston—we made another big move, this time to Atlanta. On my first day of school, the counselor met with me. He was the kind of adult who made you feel more grown up because he called you by your last name. But though he wasn’t Hispanic, and despite my numerous corrections, he pronounced my last name like a Spanish speaker, changing the double Ls—something we don’t do in Portuguese. To him, I wasn’t Ms. Mello, I was Ms. Meyo.
He would regularly call me into his office. He’d tell me the difference between New England and the South, go on monologues about how he was an immigrant himself, and how he knew what I was going through. To me, these meetings just meant missing class, and that wasn’t a good thing.
If they were truly there to help those in poverty, shouldn’t they have tried a little harder?
When we were approaching Thanksgiving, he called me into his office again. At the end of what was probably a lengthy explanation of what Thanksgiving meant, he gave me an envelope. I thanked him, stuffed it in my pocket and handed it to my parents when I got home. Inside was a gift card to a grocery store.
They were taken aback. Why did the school counselor give us this? Why not a gift card to a restaurant or the movie theater? Did he think we didn’t have enough money to feed ourselves? We used the gift card, and eventually got over how odd it was.
Looking back, I wish he would have spent more of his time listening than talking. He had decided he already knew me—knew how to say my last name, what my family was like, what we needed—and he threw his generosity at us so carelessly it felt more demeaning than kind.
Like my fifth grade counselor, we can end up doing more damage than good when we approach service haphazardly. Since it’s likely we’ve all been on the receiving end of thoughtless gifts, why do we keep repeating that mistake when it comes to serving marginalized groups? Why are we so unprepared?
Maybe part of it is just not knowing how. Though there are trainings and books available on the topic, it seems that some of us don’t want to do the extra work. I imagine that Santa Claus felt like he was already doing a lot that weekend. And it’s likely my fifth grade counselor had so many students and parents with whom he met regularly that he just couldn’t remember how to pronounce my name correctly.
When I was in college, I signed up to help in a summer program for elementary school students from lower income families. We were on a field trip to an impressive private school nearby and a group of us were walking around a trail.
“Have you gone to the pool yet?” I asked one of the students with me, trying to break the silence.
He threw his generosity at us so carelessly it felt more demeaning than kind.
“Where is the pool?” she asked me, excitement in her voice as she started looking around us.
“Oh, no, not here,” I said, though I knew this private school did in fact have a pool. “Have you gone to the pool with your family and friends?”
The girls looked confused.
“You know,” I continued, “The pool in your subdivisions—have you been yet?”
“What’s a subdivision?” one of them asked.
“Oh, it’s like a group of houses ...” I slowed down. These kids didn’t live in subdivisions, didn’t have a community pool. Instead, most of them shared small apartments and trailers with extended family or their parents’ friends. Shame coated my insides, and I wanted to flee from them and start over with another group of children.
Instead, I quickly finished explaining what subdivisions were and found a way to change the subject to the upcoming World Cup—a topic everyone was excited about.
When I think of that moment of complete ignorance, I remember my mother and that Santa Claus. I remember my fifth grade counselor. I wonder if that little girl went home and asked her parents why they hadn’t been to the pool. I wonder if walking around that beautiful, vast private school made every school she attended since seem inferior.
Even with my mother’s story and my own past experiences, I still needed to go through my own embarrassing moment before learning my lesson—before becoming more careful and more aware of my privilege and blind spots. But what if I hadn’t noticed my mistake during the conversation with those girls that summer? What if I had proceeded to have similar interactions with every other student? Every summer following that one? Imagining the damage makes me think that if we’re not willing to do the extra, thoughtful work, then maybe we shouldn’t do it at all.
I needed to go through my own embarrassing moment before becoming aware of my privilege and blind spots.
Beyond doing the extra work, I think what keeps us failing at serving those who need it most is that we’re afraid of what we’ll see when we get closer, of what we’ll know when we fully face someone in their need. We tend to strip people of everything but their need because it’s easier to face an issue than a person. But the closer we get, the more we learn that people aren’t mouths to feed. They are a name and dreams, and strengths, and a personality—and maybe he has a dry laugh that always makes him cough, and she was born on the same day as your mother, and maybe you had that same backpack when you were little.
The same humanity I share with my friends, my coworkers—the same image of Christ I can easily see in my sister and mother—I also share with people I choose to not see. Averting my eyes does not make them go away or diminish their humanity in God’s eyes, but it does call something else into question: If I’m not able to see whole, holy God-given humanity in someone who is in homelessness or in line at the gift drive, then what does that say about my own view of God? My view of myself?
Am I afraid to admit that if I were in harsher circumstances, I wouldn’t actually know what to do? Am I avoiding the person because I don’t want to admit that when it comes to the things that matter, the things that can’t be stolen or destroyed, that the person I am facing and I are really the same? These are questions I ask when I find myself avoiding eye contact with a person experiencing homelessness or going through a different door when I see someone standing by a store asking for money.
Though they are hard, these questions are worth asking. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they are where transformation can begin. And while we’re still trying to figure it out, we can do the extra thing—shake hands with someone, asking for his or her name and pronouncing it correctly. We can move through our fear and dare to look closer.