When I read my friend Victor's post about the Good Samaritan in modern times--and especially the comments about it--it brought to mind one of my earlier posts about a time when I failed to help someone. I always meant to tell you the rest of that story, but I never did...
The first time I conversed with a homeless person, I was waiting in a Chicago subway station with my friend Angela. My entire body was tense with anxiety despite the soothing melody from a cross-legged young man playing guitar at our feet. Cringing at the harsh squeal of wheels on the opposite track, I willed our train to arrive.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man approaching on my right. His clothes were shabby and dirty, and his long hair was unkempt. I wanted to run back up to the street, but instead I edged closer to Angela, who edged closer to the guitar player.
When the man spoke, I was caught off guard by his genteel manner and quiet voice. He explained that he’d fallen on hard times and had been living in the subway for a few weeks. “I know I look dirty and I probably smell,” he said, “but I haven't had a way to take a shower down here. I don't want you to feel threatened, so I'll stand back here. If there's any way you could help me, I'd be really grateful.”
I hesitated for a moment. Even though I knew he might waste the money, I had a strong desire to help him. My fear of being mugged proved stronger, though, and I replied that I’d just given my last dollar bill to the musician. This was technically true, but I also had a five and a twenty, either of which I could have spared. Another train rolled up just then, and I looked over my shoulder as we rushed to board. The man’s head hung low and his shoulders were slumped.
By the time we reached the airport, I’d forgotten the encounter, but it came back to me at Bible study two days later when we studied Matthew 25. Jesus’ words in verse 45 pierced my conscience: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” I longed to go back and respond differently, but all I could do was ask God to help me share His love the next time I had an opportunity.
That opportunity came within a few months, when my Bible study group served dinner at a downtown mission. I’d been looking forward to the experience for weeks, yet my fear that evening was nearly as strong as it had been in the subway. How could I relate to these people? Was I capable of loving them?
When the first group of mission residents settled into the molded plastic chairs, it was my ineptitude as a waitress that dominated my thoughts. I struggled to keep up with the rhythm of filling trays, distributing meals, and cleaning tables. I’d hoped to share loving words with someone who needed encouragement, but instead I felt awkward and shy amid the easy conversation and laughter at each round table.
By the time the last group filed in, I was feeling a bit more confident in my duties, but I still felt anxious. Unlike the first two groups, these men and women were homeless, and I knew some of them might be mentally or emotionally disturbed.
Actually, they weren’t all that different from the people I see every day. Most of them were neatly dressed, and all of them were polite. They talked and laughed, and they really seemed to enjoy their meal. I wanted to join in their conversations, but I had no idea what to say.
As I scraped a plate into the garbage, I paused to say a silent prayer. “I know I came here to serve, God. Thank you for the opportunity to do that. But I also wanted to… talk to someone. Please help me find the words.” I dropped a handful of dirty silverware into the gray, soapy water and headed resolutely back to clear the last few tables.
Before I picked up the next tray from a rather rough-looking man, I looked into his brown eyes and murmured, “Have a good evening.” I almost laughed at myself. Gee, that was hard.
Due to the twitch at the corner of his mouth, I suspected the man was a little amused at my discomfort, but I appreciated the way he left my dignity intact. “Thank you so much, ma’am,” he said, clasping my hand firmly.
I grinned as I shook his hand. My heart was light, my aching back and sore feet forgotten. I can’t explain what passed between us, but somehow I knew that we’d recognized each other, accepted each other in that one moment when I realized that we were both “the least of these.”