Gritting my teeth, I slowly picked up the phone. A fruitless search for a good summer job had driven me to my last choice on the list of prospective positions. I didn’t even know what the job description meant.
“Hello, I’m calling about the job opening for the picking department . . . ”
Within days my reluctant shadow darkened the doors of the Alfred Dunner clothing warehouse in Parsippany, N.J. The latest addition to my resume would involve long hours of filling (“picking”) department store orders, hauling the piles of clothing onto suspended rolling racks, and pushing the racks into oblivion (or at least to the other end of the building, which was beyond my scope of vision).
I walked up to the secretary and announced my arrival. She handed me a punch card and instructed me to join the rest of the newbies. A punch card, I thought. I have to use a punch card. I didn’t go to school for this! I’m a journalist, I’m a graduate student, not one of these . . . blue-collar picking people. Come on, Lord, what about that part-time job at Newsweek?!
I shuffled into line and received my introduction to the art of picking. I saw a few other people who looked my age, and who also appeared to have sucked lemons for breakfast. College students.
As a manager droned on about our responsibilities, I observed some of the veteran employees already busy with their duties. I saw shiny black hair, and skin of various shades of bronze. I could hear voices, but the words sounded like gibberish. Then we walked past them. With a jolt I realized they were speaking Spanish.
Intrigued, I continued to scan my surroundings. It looked like 90 to 95 percent of the workers were Latino. I suddenly felt like I’d been transported to another country, even though I was less than three miles from my family’s predominantly Anglo neighborhood.
The light of understanding began to glimmer. Maybe God had actually sent me to work in the Alfred Dunner Picking Department. (Gasp!) The thought seemed logical enough; I enjoyed meeting international people and had studied French. How hard could it be to pick up on a little Spanish? These folks were acting like they’d known each other for years. How hard could it be to befriend them? And how hard could it be to fling clothes around for a few months?
When I went home that night discouraged by cold stares, exhausted and sweaty from physical work, and wincing at the collection of angry red lines on my forearms (the result of carrying 18-20 weighted wire hangers at a time to fill every order), I thought I’d better lower my expectations.
As the days passed I learned crucial Picking Department Survival Tips. I took an old athletic sock and cut holes in it for my fingers, wearing it on my arm as padding against the wire clothing hangers. I learned to watch for every opportunity to keep the clothing racks rolling; if you didn’t keep up, you soon heard accented yells: Poosh da line down!!
I watched the clock like a hawk so I wouldn’t miss one minute of the strict lunch and break times. During these brief moments of rest I began learning some names. I met Rita, a short, stocky lady from Peru. Then there was Neris, a bubbly young gal from the Dominican Republic. Jorge, Jasmine and Alex were all natives of Colombia. Joaquin hailed from Costa Rica. And the list went on.
I soon developed a genuine respect for my co-workers. Nearly all had come to the United States to learn English. Many took classes after work — or headed to a second job. Most lived in an industrial town with a bad reputation, but that’s all they could afford. Several had exchanged good jobs in their homeland for this difficult lifestyle, just for the chance to become bilingual. They worked hard, shared lunches with each other, carpooled to and from work. Despite their varied backgrounds and dialects, they had developed community within this strange American culture.
The affinity slowly became mutual. Eventually, Rita and Neris decided to “adopt” me. In between filling orders, they began writing out Spanish lessons and helping me with pronunciation. I found that my background in French helped me pick up the phrases without much difficulty. Except when it came to rolling R’s.
The instruction in R-rolling became a team effort. One friend taught me a children’s poem; another slowly exaggerated the pronunciation. Perro, he said. Pe-rrrro.
They eventually gave up, but I tried to return the lingual assistance by answering dozens of questions about English.
I began sitting with my new friends during breaks and lunch times. The college students I’d noticed on my first day often sat nearby, and I never heard a positive comment from them. Interacting with them was like watching myself as I applied for the job. I didn’t like what I saw.
My friends and I continued to get better acquainted. One day Rita invited me to come to her home for a meal. Since I was carless, my ability to do so depended on getting my mother to drive me there or let me take the car. Mom was intrigued, too — we made the trip together.
It was unnerving to drive through neighborhoods where one’s first instinct was to lock the car doors. But we found Rita’s apartment, and were delighted to find that Neris had come to eat with us, too. We had a great time!
August arrived before I could even process that the summer was nearly over. Before long I would be on my way back to seminary. I was grieved because language difficulties had blocked opportunities to tell my friends about the Lord. But God opened a single door. One of the warehouse managers had become engaged, and a lunchtime bridal shower would be held during my last week at the warehouse.
My mind took off. I had brought my guitar to the company picnic in July and played without embarrassing myself too much . . .
When I received permission to provide music for the bridal shower, I knew the idea was God’s.
The big day came, and halfway through the party the emcee announced me. I walked to the center of the room, the whole group cheering me on. I told them I’d be singing them a song about love and I wanted everyone to know the words.
I read 1 Corinthians 13 aloud. “Love is patient, love is kind . . . ” Then I read it in Spanish — El amor es pacinete, es bondadoso . . . — and the room exploded with cheers. And then I played and sang for them, praying that the lyrics, taken straight from the Scriptures, would sink into their hearts and minds.
Several days later, I said a painful goodbye to the vibrant people I had come to love. God had changed me through that summer job. He taught me what His love looks like, and that all He needs to communicate it to those who don’t know Him is someone willing to be the means of communication.
I nearly wasted the moment — nearly wasted a summer sucking lemons over my circumstances and ignoring people I felt were unworthy of my energy and time. But Jesus used a summer of warehouse evangelism to show me that the privilege was mine.
Copyright 2003 Holly L. Hudson. All rights reserved.