Meeting Jesus in the Mall
For many religious people the mall is one of America’s prime symbols of crass materialism; yet that idea is only partially true. During the time I worked there, I met Jesus on numerous occasions. My journey began when my religious superior asked me to look for a job after I left my position as a parish director of adult religious education too late to be assigned elsewhere. The job had to be part time as I also had been allowed time to write. When I finished my list of possibilities, I remembered an acquaintance who is the owner of a religious retail store. She told me once if I knew anyone who was honest she would be interested in talking to that person. So I called her and blurted out, “How would you like to hire me?” She called back thirty minutes later and I had a job.
I didn’t have to wait long for my encounter with Jesus as my first eye-opener took place during the evening I started work. Three young women with tattoos laced up their arms walked in. I asked one of them if they were looking for something particular and if I could be of help. Then the oldest of the three responded, “Do you have any prayers for the poor souls in purgatory?” To this day I hope my face didn’t express in neon what I was initially thinking. Like Abraham’s three visitors, these women helped me to be more open to the Divine Presence when It was least expected.
To prepare me for the onslaught of my first Christmas shopping season, one co-worker quipped, “Sr. Lou, it will be insanity at its finest.” Sure enough, the hordes of last minute shoppers of that Christmas and each one thereafter validated the reasons why the mall symbolizes the spiritual void for so many religious people. However, there was another side to this picture.
I’m not sure which Christmas shopping season it was when a lady stepped out of the masses of people and into our shop. When she did, she put a face to newspaper headlines reminding me Christmas is no stranger to grief. When I asked how I could help her, she said, “I hope I’m not going to cry.” She stopped for a few moments then managed to share that her son died of a heart attack three months earlier and his fiancé was the one who found him. The lady wanted a Christmas gift for the woman who would have become her daughter-in-law. I showed her a small book on grief that I thought she might find personally helpful which she bought.
One day, during a lull between customers, another co-worker happened to mention, “Esther has six more months of chemo.” Esther managed one of the stores of a nationally known jewelry chain which was located across from ours. When I came to work the next day, I arrived early enough to stop by the jewelry store. I introduced myself and presented her with a bracelet I had made. I also told her I would be praying for her. Every so often after that I would visit so I could find out how she was doing. During one of those conversations, she told me how my gift helped her deal with her final rounds of chemotherapy.
Another example of hurting people I met was a young lady who came in and asked one of the clerks for twelve St. Jude medals for her family. The request seemed to me a bit unusual so it didn’t go unnoticed. At some point she announced sadly she felt she was losing her faith. I responded as if on automatic pilot: I went to the back room to get a small rosary out of my purse. As I put it in her hand, I whispered, “If you have the faith the size of a mustard seed and I should know; I ‘m a sister.” Then I walked away.
I suspect Gerard Manly Hopkins would be honored that his lines, “Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/To the Father through the features of men’s faces.” describe well the Jesus I met in the mall. Faces like those of the tattooed ladies, or an upscale jewelry store manager, a grieving mother, and a young woman concerned about her faith were His Face.
Then there were the unpleasant customers. I experienced early on those who have “you can put that back now” attitude. In other words, they had control issues. I still remember one very unpleasant customer in particular who would come in every two or three weeks and almost always at night. One Saturday night I was lucky as he came in while I had gone to the food court to eat my sandwich. During that time my boss finally had to ask him to leave because he was verbally abusing the other customers. Yet he too was the face of Jesus.
Thanks to those encounters and many like them I can season my vocation talks with modern stories of the Word becoming Flesh. The Incarnation has been the raison d’ for my religious community for over four hundred years, as a result, I believe my work was more than a job; it was a calling. So when I hear sermons or read articles in religious magazines critiquing the mall and American materialism, I cringe a bit. Then I remember I was given a unique grace of working in a place where God seems to be absent.
St. Teresa of Avila’s lines, “Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world” apply as much to the mall as to anywhere and everywhere else. Granted, far too many people who work or shop there are enmeshed in our society’s “muchness.” However; the next time you go to the mall, take another look; you might meet Jesus like I did. On the other hand, perhaps He found me.