Sunday in Berlin, El Salvador is market day- at least until noon. People from the city and many of the surrounding Cantons set up shop, either with a rented space inside of the deceptively large and complex market itself or outside along the street. Most people have a kiosk of some sort, a few have just a large piece of plywood with their wares attached to it. Everyone shows ingenuity and industry in what they sell and how they sell it- from the guy selling pirated DVDs with a DVD player handy to demonstrate that they work, to the folks selling dried fish set neatly in tubs, separated from the crabs. The market is a place of commerce, but it is also a place where people gather as they sell or buy or simply chat with the person in the next kiosk. There was an abundance of things and an abundance of people there.
The night before we went to the market, our delegation had a reflection time when we looked at the story from Luke 7, where a nameless woman came into a dinner party and washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. It boggles the mind to think of how much pain would create enough tears to wash someone’s feet, but the host of the party simply dismissed the woman as a ‘sinner.’ So, Jesus question to him was, “Do you see this woman?” So, the whole time I was walking through the market, I was thinking about that question and hoping to see, to really see, the people that I passed in the market.
Seeing everyone was not easy. First, there are so many people there moving around and if you were in the aisle you need to keep moving because there are plenty of folks behind you. And, if you stop for too long to look at anything or anyone, some of the vendors assume that you want to buy something and begin to offer you everything they have. Others, like the legless man sitting along the corridor with his hand outstretched, are hard to look at. Sometimes it felt like I was being a ‘tourist’ when the folks gathered there wanted me to be a ‘customer.’ And one guy- he and his brother are familiar faces to us after all these years- simply wanted me to give him money. I tried talking a bit with him, found out he had spent a little time in Virginia (my home state) and spoke a little English, etc. But as soon as I said ‘No’ to his request for a couple of dollars, he got pretty ugly and I simply had to walk away from him.
Walking through the market with Jesus’ question ringing in my ears was an interesting experience. Did I see that woman? Did I notice that child? Did I pay enough attention to that man? I did not want to put on my “Don’t mess with me” face that I normally wear in crowded places. I wanted to be fully present. BUT, I was reminded constantly that relationships are two-way streets.
A prolonged look may be a welcomed encounter in one case and a suspect invasion of privacy in another. Or, to put it more crudely, just because I show up wanting a “Jesus moment” with people doesn’t mean that the woman who has spent all morning loading up her avocadoes in hopes of making a little money wants to waste her time with a guy who has no intention of buying any. Being fully present in the market means not only carrying good intentions around in my head, but also honoring the real folks whom I encounter- people who were not just sitting there so that I could have a mission experience, but people with lives and stories and struggles and hopes.
Sometimes the answer to “Did you see this woman?” might be, “Yes, and she wanted me to get out of the way because the guy behind me wanted to buy something.” This darned world just refuses to center around me even when I’m trying to be all Jesusy.