Through the far-reaching avenues of social media, Mrs. Pincus came upon a wonderful organization called Valley Youth House. Since its humble beginnings over 40 years ago, Valley Youth House has offered shelter and counseling to LGBT youngsters, now homeless and abused, who have been cast out by families that do not approve of their lifestyle. The thought of parents kicking their child out of the house because they are gay is heartbreaking. I have heard first-hand stories of this — where religion (there's that word again!) has taken precedent over a parent's love for a child — and it is just inconceivable.
Valley Youth House presented a program for the holiday season in which their residents compiled wish lists for presents. These lists were posted on the organization's Facebook page and people could chose to buy as much or as little from the individual youth's requests. Then, once purchased and properly identified with the recipient's first name, the gifts could be dropped off at one of several locations for eventual distribution.
My wife was matched up with Diane, a 16-year-old girl who was thrown out of her home by her parents. Mrs. P perused her requests. Diane asked for an iPad right off the bat. Nice try, kiddo, but I don't even have an iPad. Further down (and more reasonable) on the list were some lotions from Forever 21, a trendy and sometimes controversial* chain store catering to "fashion du jour," as well as a gift card from the store. That was more like it.
One afternoon, Mrs. P popped into a nearby Forever 21 and purchased several items – a gift-packaged assortment of lotions and the gift card – from Diane's selections. The cashier gathered everything up and placed them into a sturdy, bright yellow plastic bag emblazoned with the store's logotype. At home, my wife arranged the items in a small, festive gift bag and asked if I could transport the present to Valley Youth House's office just three blocks from the building in which I work in Philadelphia. I said I'd be happy to. (Never let it be said that I am not charitable and won't walk three blocks to prove it.)
At noon on a Tuesday, I put on my jacket, grabbed the bright yellow plastic Forever 21 bag containing the gift and set out for my three-block good deed journey. Fifteen minutes later, when I returned from my goodwill mission, I began to fold the plastic bag to shove it into my messenger bag to bring it home and add to our handy collection of shopping bags that every home has. Carefully folding the bottom of the bag up to the top, I screeched to a halt. Covertly printed in plain block letters along the bottom gusset of the bag were seven characters bisected by single mark of punctuation. I was horrified.
"John 3:16" I recognized it immediately as a biblical reference and I knew (from numerous category appearances on Jeopardy! and that rainbow-wigged nut job at various televised sporting events) it was from the New Testament. To be really sure of its meaning, a quick Google search yielded this:
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
"Wow." was my first thought. "What is this doing on the bag of a retail store?" was my second thought. "Why are they hiding it?" was the thought after that. A little more Internet research revealed that Forever 21's founders, Do Won Chang and his wife Jin Sook, are born-again Christians. Fine. Good for them. But, if they are so proud of their religious beliefs, why isn't the scriptural quote plastered across the front of every one of their stores instead of secretly tucked away where the average person (and possibly-offended customer) might not see it. At least right-wing poultry purveyors Chick-Fil-A (no pun intended) have no problem wearing their Jesus on their sleeve. They have made their views on religion and abortion and gay rights publicly known with seemingly no regard for the repercussions on their business — and there were plenty of repercussions. Plus it's kind of difficult to hide the fact that all Chick-Fil-As are closed on Sunday (the Lord's Day or the Chicken's Day). Sneaking a tiny biblical reference into an inconspicuous spot on a component of your business is just that — sneaky. I wonder if our anonymous gift recipient Diane realizes that she is patronizing a store that has such deep religious beliefs that it feels compelled to preach its message — however secluded — to its customers. Diane, as we learned, was tossed out of her house by her folks because of her struggle with her own sexuality. Instead of love, compassion and understanding from her parents, they chose to forsake their child in favor of... well, nothing should be more important than your child in a time of need. Perhaps Diane would cease shopping at Forever 21 if she knew they shared the same feelings as the parents who turned their backs on her. Perhaps, Forever 21 is aware of the uncomfortable feeling that forced religion may give potential customers, so while they still preach their gospel... they just hide it.
West Coast fast-food darlings In-N-Out Burger have taken the Forever 21 route, as well. Thousands of unsuspecting customers are drinking sodas and munching hamburgers from cardboard cups and containers imprinted with tiny bible verse references not readily noticeable to the naked eye. But if you look carefully, they're there. On the inside rim on the bottom of cups. On the bottom corner of french fry bags. On the bottom of burger wrappers. I guess the next step is opening drive-thru confessionals.
Remember when you were a kid in Sunday School and they'd tell you that "God is everywhere"? I don't think this is what they meant.
*Forever 21's business practices regarding labor and copyright infringement have been questioned.