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Confessions of a Money Changer

While visiting a very close friend, I agreed to help with her church's women's ministry event. I expected to prepare hospitality tables, fill vases with flowers and serve coffee and muffins. It's what we often do in women's ministry.

Instead, I was directed to the makeshift market that had been set up in the lobby. Eight-foot long, cloth-covered tables were fashioned into a large rectangle. The speaker's collection of books, teachings, recordings and—most surprisingly—jewelry covered every inch of the tables. Eight volunteers, myself included, would sell the speaker's wares after her talk.

The speaker shared her incredible testimony in a two-hour service. Her story was heartbreaking; she had endured abuse, depression, cancer and the loss of a child. She led us through worship and gave an altar call. Over 50 women made their way to the front and stood—with raised hands and tear-stained faces—for a half hour as she encouraged them and prayed over them.

By all appearances, it was a holy night. But despite the sacred nature of the service, the ladies poured out of the auditorium and immediately began to exercise the spiritual gift of shopping. The seven volunteers and I were absolutely slammed (and I think stunned) by the crowd.

Jewelry was the hottest seller. Cross necklaces made of multi-colored rhinestones filled one table while scripture bracelets were grouped together on another. Pins exclaiming "DADDY'S DAUGHTER" in fake diamonds were tied with gold ribbon to some of the speaker's books.

"Oh look, it's a fruits of the spirit bracelet!" a customer said, as she held up a silver bracelet with charms that read "love," "joy," "peace," etc., dangling from the chain.

"Do you have anything in gold?" a customer asked me. "Um … let me check," I said, as I reluctantly sorted through boxes.

I am an energetic woman who completes every task with enthusiasm, but I found myself going through the motions in a dream-like state. Something bizarre was happening before my eyes, but it appeared that I was the only one who was noticing. It was a Twilight Zone moment.

"How does this look?" a woman asked her friend as she held a gaudy three-inch cross to her neck. She was a thin, serious-looking woman in her 60s—the kind of woman who looked like she listened to NPR—so I kept searching her face for traces of a joke. She was serious.

"Ooohh, pretty," her friend answered.

The NPR-looking woman bought the cross and wore it smiling out of the building.

There was a sign that advertised a free "Jesus is coming" bag with every $50 purchase. A very plain woman walked up to the table with her two teenage daughters and spent enough money on jewelry to earn her two "Jesus is coming" bags.

This broke my heart. It was obvious that she had very little money and, since she wore neither makeup nor earrings, jewelry hardly seemed a priority. A bedazzled cross on her neck would look as gaudy as an "I LOVE JESUS" pin on Mother Theresa. The woman was beautiful just the way she was.

When the crowds dwindled, the speaker breezed into the lobby. "Thank you for all your help, ladies," she said. "Oh, and don't forget to take a piece of jewelry and a book for yourselves. My treat. I highly recommend my newest book …"

But I just smiled weakly and looked away. As fellow workers carefully chose their gifts, I found myself nervously glancing at the door instead. I half expected Jesus to appear at any moment with a corded whip in his hands, yelling, "Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!" After all, he's been known to do things like that.

I wondered if he would overturn our tables as he did in the temple courts. It would have created quite a mess. (Unlike the Bible story, however, coins would not have gone flying. Most of the transactions were made with Visa and MasterCard.)

The memory of this night turns my stomach and stabs at my soul. How did we get to this strange place in the American church? Why do we pin rhinestone JESUS baubles to our breasts, but fail to be Jesus to those who silently cry out to us? Why would we spend enough money to tote around a "Jesus is coming" bag, but repeatedly fail to find the resources to make sure our hungry are fed?

It took the volunteers and me a long time to repack all the unsold paraphernalia in cardboard and bubble wrap. I looked at the army of boxes piled at our feet knowing that tomorrow they would be shipped by UPS to the next market. (Uh, I mean church.)

Jesus never did appear in the lobby of the church that night. In retrospect, I can't help but wonder if he showed up at all.

November06, 2009 at 3:05 PM

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