We had just walked into the front gate of the local zoo. The girls were excited, I could tell, and since on a Saturday it was much more crowded than the last time we visited, I immediately began to lay down the ground rules for safety.
“It’s crowded today, so I need you to stick close to Mommy and Daddy,” I instructed my five and seven year old. “If you can’t see me, I can’t see you.”
This was a common occurrence in parenthood. Going out in public with children was inevitable, and depending on where you went, it was even a lot fun. We loved going places together as a family, but my eyes were always on them. That’s the way it had to be, and nothing induced chest pain more than a missing head when I did a quick scan. Those clothing racks sure are cool to hide in, but can make a mother freak out.
So after my safety speech we plunged forward towards the sea otters. When suddenly from my left side a man approached quickly. He was smiling a huge grin, and I could see the shadows around his gums where the caps met the flesh. He was wide eyed and moving with purpose.
“What’s your name?” He asked with a nod of his head.
I was taken aback, but stopped in my tracks as he held his hand out to me. My husband had stopped also, and he turned towards the stranger who blocked my passage forward.
“I’m Brie,” I answered hesitantly, pumping up and down the hand he had offered.
“And I’m Ben,” my husband added, as the man smiled bigger and went for my husband’s hand.
“Nice to meet you,” he replied eagerly. “My name is Greg.”
I tried to smile at what was honestly an unusual situation. I mean, strangers didn’t just rush up on you and make pleasantries, especially in a large city. I watched the man warily, but at his next words my stomach clenched involuntarily.
“What are your kid’s names?” He asked next.
I didn’t know what to say. Somewhere inside the Momma Bear raised up on her haunches. Who is this man asking about my babies? Stranger Danger! You don’t know this man!
My husband began to introduce our children in his kind voice, and I allowed my guard to come down a bit. A very little bit. It wasn’t that I was getting some bad vibe off this dude. My Spidey Sense wasn’t telling me to dropkick the guy. My discernment wasn’t even trying to warn me. It’s just that it was so unusual compared to what is considered a societal norm. The guy was being super friendly. Weird, right?
As the man rattled on about his name being Greg, again, I pictured two ladies headed in our direction. They also moved with a sense of purpose, and I just knew immediately that they were with Greg.
“I’m sorry,” the lead lady mouthed as she made her way across the promenade, her eyes gentle and compassionate.
As she approached she said, “Come on, Greg. They need to get going.”
Then I looked back as she took his hand into hers. At that moment he looked like a little boy in a man’s body, and nothing like the weirdo pedophile I had imagined when he first spoke. His eyes remained wide, bright, expectant as he glanced excitedly around the zoo. His large smile never faltered as he walked off hand in hand with the woman who was obviously there to care for him and keep him safe much like I was my children. He had been so friendly because in his childlike-mind innocence reigned.
We went our separate ways and I realized something quickly. I tried to speak it to my husband, but the words wouldn’t come out. There was a hitch in my throat, an emotional lump that prevented me from talking, but eventually I was able to say it.
“That shouldn’t have been odd, but it was because of the world we live in,” I said emotionally.
And it was true. We lived in a world where people got followed by sex traffickers in Walmart, in a world where one out of five girls gets sexually assaulted, and a world in which I felt a large responsibility of my life was protecting my daughter’s bodies and virtue from predators.
“There’s nothing wrong with being alert to danger, either,” my husband replied.
And he was right about that. The same man who had smiled kindly, shook hands, and offered up our children’s names was right, and I knew the entire time he had been on high alert despite his sunny disposition. Daddy was a bear too.
He was right about being smart and protective, but I guess it just made me sad that we lived in a world where that had to be true. We lived in a world where evil existed readily, and sometimes people meant you dastardly harm. Yet sometimes people were kind too. Most of us walked around with our fences up, guard up, and heart closed up. We did it for our own protection. We did it to keep out the people who wished to harm us. Most of us walked around with a padlock and deadbolt on our spirit. We were too busy being protective of ourselves and our families to hear God’s voice beckoning us to say hello, shake a hand, and offer love. It was the world we lived in. I just wish it didn’t have to be that way.
Last week we had gone to a local park in the city. The pictures online had looked lovely, but as we pulled up I immediately saw an arm sticking out of a lump of tarp. It was a sleeping man. Very quickly I saw another. As I scanned the wooded area to our right I saw several people with makeshift tents and shopping carts full of their belongings.
“I’m not sure about this,” my husband had said.
Yet we left our vehicle and decided to check it out further. As we walked deeper into the park we saw even more homeless people. Every step on a cemented staircase stage held a sleeping body wrapped up and covered by a worn blanket, like a breathing burrito abandoned on the ground. I took it all in, and around this time my husband sighted a man who gave him a bad feeling. The guy’s behavior made my husband feel very certain he was a drug dealer, and it was at this point he said we were turning back to go home.
As we headed back to our truck an older man on a bench called out to my spouse. He pointed towards a playground in the distance, my husband offered a thumb’s up, but we kept moving towards the parking lot.
“Oh, I see,” said the old man. “Y’all go on, then. But y’all is safe here. We used to all this!”
I could tell my husband was bothered when we got back to our truck. He said he wished he had a truckload of food and water to give the guy to disperse.
He said, “I’d let him know that just because you don’t want your young kids around stuff they’re not ready for, it doesn’t mean you’re judging anyone.”
I felt much like he did. Compassion for our fellow man, love for others, a desire to help, but also this driving force to protect our children from harm. I felt shame that we left, but also gratitude for discernment and safe children. It was hard sometimes, though, to tell discernment from fear. Fear because this world has become so harsh. But I never wanted to be part of the problem.
I told a handful of family about the incident. 3/4 of them spoke how frightening it was, how glad they were we were safe. Yet one spoke something else.
“What if that was Jesus on that bench trying to get y’all to speak to those people?” He had asked.
That stung. It stung because it very well could have been. It was difficult to be a child of God, to treat others, no matter their situation, as a child of God, and to protect your own children in the process. I have gone back and forth about sharing our homeless park story. I worried for how many would judge us for walking away. Then I figured just as many would salute us for the same. This is the world we live in. I just wish it wasn’t so.
I wish I could not fear harm for my family. I wish I could see a stranger saying hello as innocent. I wish I could go into the store with my children and not worry they could be abducted. I strive my very best to not live by fear because perfect love drives out such a thing, but I also know God gives us wisdom to be wary when a situation warrants it. I just pray my healthy “fear,” that feeling that warns me of harm, can outweigh the fright that prevents me from being the best me I can be, and from doing God’s will.
It’s the world we live in. I wish it wasn’t so. But perhaps I can be a light in the darkness, a greeter of strangers, a helper to those down on their luck, while loving my daughters, keeping them safe, and showing them the love of Jesus. As always, I’m a work in progress.
I’ve always loved this quote by LR Knost.
It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.