“Don’t forget your online coupon, dear.”
I looked blankly at the woman ahead of me in the checkout line.
“You can save ten percent if you pull up the coupon on your phone,” she said. “You have time; it’s not like this line is moving.”
I smiled and thanked her, then fell silent. After a long day of meetings and conference calls, I wasn’t feeling too chatty.
“I always know how to find a good bargain,” the woman continued, adding that she was a retired teacher who now volunteered at a nearby learning center. She was purchasing classroom supplies at her own expense, just as she’d done throughout her tenure at several Catholic grade schools, including the one at my parish.
“I’m not Catholic now, though,” she said. “My husband and I are born again.” Seeing my Miraculous Medal, she shook her head and whispered, “You shouldn’t worship idols, dear.”
I bit my lip and said a quick prayer to the Holy Spirit. I wasn’t up for a theological debate; I just wanted to buy a few craft supplies and go home. I managed to gently respond that we differed as to the definition of an idol.
Troubled, she turned to her husband. “Herb, tell her she shouldn’t worship idols like we did when we were Catholic.”
He squinted at me. “You look like Goldie Hawn, you know that?”
I chuckled and, for the rest of my time in that long checkout line, I patiently listened to the couple recount their experiences with — and opinions about — evangelical Christianity, game shows (“Wheel of Fortune” was their favorite), irritable bowel syndrome (from which both suffered), the immigration crisis, scrapbooking and conservative news hosts.
As the conversation meandered, I found myself alternately liking and disliking the couple. Many of their views were diametrically opposed to my own, and in my younger and more hotheaded days, I might have found myself moving to another register to avoid people with whom I so deeply disagreed.
Yet every time I wanted to dismiss this couple as being too different from me — not my faith, not my politics, not my type — one of them would say something that softened my heart. She always bought extra snacks for the kids at her learning center; many were poor, and the teacher herself was struggling to make ends meet. He often visited a lonely neighbor, with whom he watched classic movies. They both wanted me to check my phone one more time for that online coupon (“every penny counts,” she said). And even in their desire for me switch from Catholicism to an evangelical denomination, there was a genuine concern, however imperfect.
We finally neared the register, and after they had paid and gathered their bags, the couple smiled at me again.
“Remember, dear — no idols,” she winked, and he waved. “Goodbye, Goldie!”
While reading the news later, I was drawn back to that checkout chat. The headlines neatly defined humanity as “liberals” or “conservatives,” as “believers” or “non-believers,” as one race or another. But what I’d found in that mundane moment was something much more nuanced, a blurry shade that is often called gray, but that is actually far more vibrant than the rainbow.
Despite the political polls, the market research and the hashtag howls, we’re just not that easily reduced to monochrome. Our desires, our experiences, our inherent strengths and weaknesses all give us a depth that eludes the five-crayon selection our culture offers. And even in the most hardened of hearts, some trace of kindness may yet be found — the watermark of the artist who created each and every one of us in his image and likeness.
Only when we trade our desperately limited palette for the rich tones of the divine can we see the other person before us in full color — a complex, dimensional being who is “not just something, but someone” (CCC, 357).
Gina Christian is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.
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