I’m embarrassed. Even a bit ashamed. I thought I knew my community, but I didn’t.
After seminary, I was excited to get my first call as a pastor. In a rural area in Minnesota, it should be fast and easy right? Nope. Four months after graduation I was still waiting for a call. My savings were used up, and I needed to find work. On my way into town, I stopped by the local Dollar General. It was closed. CLOSED? How can a Dollar General be closed in the middle of the day? A note on the door said they lacked employees to keep it open and I could apply online.
So I did. I needed a job where I could quit when I got my first call. I was hired and worked as a cashier in the community I had lived in for 19 years. I knew business owners by their first name, grieved when the mayor died and could tell a tourist from a mile away. I knew the back doors to use when business was “closed” to the public. I had 10-minute conversations with friends in the grocery aisles and pumping gas. I was a local.
But I did not know my community.
As a cashier I interacted with a lot of people. My first shock was when I had regular customers that did not speak English. I know you’re thinking: how out of touch am I? We are a town of 550 that was described in the LA Times as being very homogenous. (The article was about the George Floyd protests and how one local mother of adopted black sons protested along a lakeside road.) Our town has no manufacturing or big business like neighboring towns.
What I learned was that a housing shortage in bigger towns had brought immigrant workers to our area. They kept to themselves and did not join in on community events. The only place they really frequented was the Dollar General.
They were my neighbors, yet I did not even know they existed.
One elderly man came into the store regularly to buy essentials. Every time he visited, he would swipe his debit card and it would not work. He’d look at me and ask me what his PIN was. I then would walk around the counter, ask for his phone, turn it over and point to the marker-written pin on the phone case.
He was not the only elderly person who needed help. As I was checking out another older gentleman, he started crying. His son called him today. He hadn’t talked to his son in years. He needed someone to simply listen to him about that experience. And he found it at a discount store.
It takes a community to support the elderly. An elderly couple came in to buy cough syrup. You could tell the wife needed the medication. They got out one-dollar bills, then quarters, then dimes, nickels and finally pennies. But they did not have enough to pay for the medication. The manager pulled out his own wallet and paid for the cough syrup. That was not the first time the manager helped an elderly customer, nor would it be the last.
I had not met any of these people in all my years as an active citizen. In fact, I knew very few of the people who frequented the dollar store. There are only 550 people in my community—how could I not know so many people?
I thought I knew my community, but I didn’t.
We sell that?
I was surprised by how many pregnancy test kits we sold. One mom bought a pregnancy test kit, handed it to her teenage daughter, asked for the bathroom key and marched her daughter down to the bathroom. (The daughter came out of the bathroom smiling …)
I was also surprised by who was on food stamps. While food stamps are common in our area, I was caught unaware when people who had full-time jobs received food stamps. They fit the criteria—it wasn’t fraud.
But I suspect money laundering is a thing in our little town. One man came in to buy large dollar amounts in gift cards he had no plans on using. It was a way to earn a little extra money and the store manager was unlikely to hassle a good customer.
I thought I knew my community, but I didn’t.
Dollar General as a community center
The dollar store was a place to socialize. I watched women comfort friends over divorces, child custody arguments and drinking problems. Therapy sessions were held in the pet food aisle. Tears were shed amongst the chips in aisle 3. Some townsfolk came in not to shop but to talk—to employees or other customers. I found myself concerned when a daily customer didn’t show. Many shopped only at Dollar General—never venturing out for anything other than what Dollar General sells or fuel for their vehicle.
I thought I knew my community for 19 years, but I didn’t.
I found (and fell in love with) a whole slew of people I didn’t know lived in my town: people with mental health challenges, the poor, and downright lonely. And people who struggled to get by in a world where they did not know the language, currency or customs.
I could be a pastor to these people—now that I knew they existed.
Do you know your community? You may be like me, only familiar with your own social circles. Here are a few suggestions for getting to know your community better, especially in rural areas or small towns:
- Shop at the local discount stores. Pay attention to the people around you rather than focusing on your shopping list. Wait at the end of a long checkout line and watch people. How they pay and interact with the cashier tells you a lot about them.
- Ask a convenience store employee if there is someone you can pray for. Often it will be themselves. Convenience stores are physically demanding for employees—causing back, knee and foot issues.
- Volunteer at the local food shelf (or start a new one), re-use it store or other charity that vulnerable people visit.
- Attend benefits for people in need. Those in need are often supported by people with similar needs and experiences.
- If you can, work a few shifts a week at the local convenience store. You might be surprised by what or whom you did not know.
Knowing that vulnerable people are here with us is the first step to loving them as neighbors.