Last night, Z., H., and I cooked chicken enchiladas for a woman named Janine, her one-year-old son, Jermaine, and two new friends, Tom and Karen. Janine and Jermaine are staying in the church we’re attending for the summer, while Janine gets her feet on the ground. Each night a family makes them dinner and another sleeps over in the church. We did not know quite what to expect going into the evening, but we were excited to connect with new people.
We ate in a nearby house that the church owns, at a table set "lavishly" with baby carrots and ranch dip, SunChips, salad, and the various juices and teas that people have left after their meals. Janine said that she was allergic to spice and couldn't eat the enchiladas, so Karen scrounged for something in the refrigerator. The first few options did not work, but eventually we found something she liked. At first the conversation at the table was forced, and I felt like the whole system was patronizing: everyone fawned over the baby, questions were c-l-e-a-r-l-y articulated, and Janine struggled for space. Yet, barriers fell as the meal progressed, voices dropped into normal cadence, and the interaction became more genuine.
Janine told us about her five brothers, one or two sisters, and “no good” father from Africa. She connected with H., who is from Namibia, with her African roots. She told us about how she works in her son’s day care, and Tom and Karen wondered if it was the one they had sent their kids to, many years ago. We told her about college, and she told us about how she is pursuing her degree. She wants to be a police woman, and her face lit up when Tom told her that the renowned local police chief also grew up in the city and had a child when she was young. As we talked, Jermaine sat quietly in the high chair and observed the scene. Karen commented that he was so well-behaved and how that’s a sign of a good mother. Janine said that was she was so happy when she found out that she was having a boy that she nearly fainted. Boys are so much easier, she said. They don’t want to grow up as fast.
The conversation moved to Michael Pollan and the local food movement. Z., H., and I had gone over this with Tom and Karen the night before when they ate at our house, but we brought it up again in light of the new foods. All of a sudden, Janine piped up, “You can never trust what you eat. All those chemicals in the food! It’s better to grow your own food.” I smiled to myself. Here the three of us were, subconsciously wrapped up in our educations, opportunities, and promise, discussing a movement perceived as elitist by some, and Janine was right there. She got it all. Her statements made me realize, once again, that people are inherently similar. We might dress or speak differently. We might face different challenges, but we want the same safety, belonging, and joy. While I had wondered before if Janine would feel bad about taking our food, the thought seemed irrelevant now. We were not giving her charity. We were opening ourselves and sharing a meal, just as we would with any dinner guest. She was no less than us because she could contribute fewer material things. In fact, with a degree in the works, a full-time job, and a well-behaved son, she has a lot for which she should be proud.
After dinner, Z. and Tom went into the kitchen to clean up, and H. and I took Jermaine for a walk to give Janine a break. Not yet two, the boy already had a clear personality. He was shy at first, but gradually he would smile. He liked to close the dishwasher, help push his stroller, and carefully lock the front gate. When we returned him to his mother, we felt a warm affinity for him and for Janine. Our paths had crossed by chance in the over-planned improvisation of life. We locked eyes before she turned toward the cold church and we got in Tom’s car to go home. I did not know until the end of the night that Janine was younger than me.
6 years ago