The day I met Fana she was slowly walking down the middle of Troost Avenue. I stopped and asked her if she was okay and suggested she move to the sidewalk. I’m not sure she understood me then.
After many months of seeing her on the street and in and out of our church and at Reconciliation Services, she seemed like she had become more comfortable with me. In her broken English she would ask me questions. She always asked me about my “babies.” Mostly she was quiet. I learned that she had emigrated from east Africa. She lived in a group home and had lost custody of her children due to her mental illness and instability.
One Sunday after church I noticed how badly worn her shoes were. I asked her what size she wore. I had collected some donation items earlier in the week and I had a great pair of shoes in my car that had never been worn. They were even her size. What a wonderful coincidence I thought.
When I took her out to the car and showed them to her she said she didn’t want them. Here I was trying to help her, to give her what she needed! I didn’t understand. But then again, I never asked her if she needed (or even wanted) new shoes. I saw her torn and dirty shoes and I thought I could fix that for her.
The following week a friend and I asked Fana if she wanted to go to the store with us and pick out a pair of shoes. She seemed excited to go with us. It was fall and with winter on its way I tried to steer her towards some sensible options. She didn’t like what I picked out. She kept returning again and again to a pair of flashy and impractical wedge slip-on sandals.
Against my better judgement we got the sandals. Fana seemed happy.
The next time I saw her she wasn’t wearing the sandals. She was wearing her old tattered shoes. Didn’t she like them? Had she lost them? Had she sold them? I didn’t ask her about them because I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.”
I saw someone who needed shoes and I gave her shoes. I saw a need and honed in on a practical solution. That’s a good thing, right? But giving Fana a pair of shoes was well within the realm of what I could spare. It didn’t stretch me or challenge me. It didn’t necessitate time or attention—things that are much harder for me to part with.
I have written a quote on a chalkboard in my house by French philosopher Simone Weil. It reads, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” My giving was more of a knee-jerk-reaction to a need than an act of generosity.
Over the course of many months of driving her to and from church and talking with her on the phone I did have more time with Fana. I learned of her sadness in losing her children. I heard her story of how she traded one world of suffering for another. I saw her frustration with her inability to understand the language and the place she now found herself in. I saw that in her tattered old purse that carried bits of plastic bags, random found objects, and what seemed like trash, she also carried the beautifully intricate beaded jewelry she made.
St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:3 that “though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor … but have not love, it profits me nothing.”
Fana needed so much—a home, a job, her family restored, her mind restored, and even some new shoes. But what I failed to understand till much later was that what she enjoyed about going to the store to pick out those shoes was the attentiveness that was offered to her then.
Giving that is separated from love is empty. And generosity without attention is common and limited.
Fana is not unlike others I have met through Reconciliation Services. Trauma, displacement, abuse, poverty, mental illness, sickness, and addiction rob people of their dignity and so much more. By honoring and deeply respecting people, Reconciliation Services labors to cultivate true veneration for the people it serves. It is a generosity that is born out of attentiveness and it goes far beyond a quick fix for an immediate need.
Fana has moved to another state. We have talked on the phone a few times since she moved. I never did see her wear those silly sandals. But in the end it wasn’t about me giving her the shoes I thought she needed—the quick fix. In the end, I needed to see that the most generous gift I could offer her was attention.
Article by Jodi Mathews