Last Wednesday morning, we were running late. It had taken longer than we expected to pick up my mother’s birthday cake at LaBaguette Bakery, so we tried to find the quickest route possible to Jackson, Mississippi, where we were to meet my mother and family for lunch to celebrate her 84th birthday. Along Union Avenue, I instinctively told Ruthie to move over to the left lane, because the right lane was blocked by all the cars waiting in line for the food bank at Idlewild Presbyterian Church. This was Ruthie’s first time to see this long parade of cars that snaked around a huge block in front of the church and stretched the length of its side streets. She teared up and began sobbing. She talked about how seeing this long line of cars put our stress over our errands to pick up the birthday cake and get to the party on time in perspective. These people were hungry. And they were willing to wait however long it was needed to get food for their families.
It was not my first time to see this long parade of cars. I have a standing appointment in midtown every Wednesday morning and have seen this sight almost every week since the pandemic began this spring. At first, I was appalled that this could be happening in the United States of America. I thought, this is what it must have been like to see bread lines during the Great Depression. Seeing that parade of cars and seeing the diverse faces of people from all over our city and region that were willing to wait in line for hours for a box of food brought the economic impact of the pandemic home to me in a very real way. But after seeing the parade of cars every week, it somehow blended into the “new normal.” It is one of the things that has become a part of my weekly routine, just like my daily routine of checking off a mental checklist before walking out the door of our apartment is now “keys, wallet, cell phone, face mask.” In the words of a song by Pink Floyd, I have become “comfortably numb.”
Ruthie’s tears awakened me from this state and jarred me into seeing the long parade of cars through fresh eyes. How could this still be happening in our city and country? And I began to reflect on all those faces of drivers and passengers, realizing that in each car there was a story of hardship and desperation that drove each one of them to get up early on a Wednesday morning to wait in line for a box of food that would make all the difference in their world this week.
I thought too of how I’ve become numb to the little boxes on the top left corner of our TV screen on cable news with the numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths. I remembered when reaching a new milestone jarred me. Now, as the numbers cross over 6,000,000 cases and 180,000 deaths in the U.S., it was hard for me to feel anything. It seemed like yesterday we crossed over to 5,000,000 cases and 100,000 deaths. But what brings these numbers home to me, is watching the last segment on the PBS NewsHour on Friday evenings and seeing the photos and hearing the stories of five persons who died from the coronavirus. To their families and friends, the pandemic is not a series of faceless numbers. It’s all too real to them. And it becomes real to me. I wish I had known their loved ones. And for a few moments, I do know them and I hurt.
I sometimes say that as a preacher, my favorite verse of the Bible is “Sleeper, Awake!” But, if you look at that entire verse of Ephesians 5:14, it reads: “For everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’” I’m grateful to Ruthie for waking me up that morning and helping me see.