Tonight a man came into church late. Although he sat down quietly, he stood out. No one else in the group had a baseball cap on. And except for the minister, who was from Kenya, everyone else was white. Except for this late-arriving visitor.
I went to speak to him after the service. He said he had come into the church to pray, not realizing he would be entering a service, quite late. He said that since there were people there, he would also ask for help, and said he needed twenty dollars to pay for the boarding house where he was staying. He said he had been doing lawnwork that usually paid for his stay, but the past few days had not been able to get any work.
Intuition told me he was telling the truth. I asked various questions to see if my intuition might be right, and his answers and his demeanor seemed to fit with my initial impression.
I don't know if I was right or not, but since the Kenyan minister was not allowed to administer church funds and could only encourage the man to come back tomorrow and speak with the appropriate person, I felt the right thing to do was to try to help the man. After all, we were in a church, had just heard a sermon on prayer; and here was this man saying he had come to the church to pray for help, and now he was asking in a very respectful, non-manipulative, I-understand-if-you-can't-help-me sort of way.
So, I walked with him to our house, talked with my husband about it (I didn't have any cash with me), and we gave him twenty dollars. I also told him about HopeWorks and our program, gave him the phone number and the name of the person he needed to talk with if he were interested.
Two things from our conversation have stayed on my mind. At some point he asked, "So, you went to college?" and I said, "Yes, I did." He responded, "Wow, you were lucky. That's really good, that you got to do that."
And when he said something about how nice the people at church had been, I asked, "So, did you grow up going to church?" And he said, "No, I didn't. My parents were good parents, they did the best they could; but they didn't take us to church. I think that's part of why my life has been so....well, has lacked direction. I didn't have any direction in my life, and it just kind of came apart. I was thirty before I finally realized I needed to get to know God and find some direction for my life. And since I did that, things have been going better. I started to have some hope."
I remember a graduation speech based on Paul's words to Timothy, "What do you have that you were not given?" and the encouragement to remember always that anything we have (education, talents, abilities, economic resources, friends, family, whatever) has been given to us by someone. Even if we worked for it--and in the case of that degree, worked hard for it!--still, we didn't build the school, or supply the scholarships, or provide our own professors. Everything we have is given to us in one way or another.
And so, here was this man, Michael, walking down the street with me. He wasn't given a way to discover faith in his younger years. He wasn't given the means to go to college. And now he struggles with life, is transitioning out of living a homeless lifestyle, and is very aware of his dependency on others simply to have shelter over his head.
Something else about the evening stays in my mind. I was reading the blog of my spiritual director, who wrote about a couple who came to his church looking for help.
He makes an interesting point that I've never heard anyone make before. Lots of people in this culture (like the couple who came to his church) say they believe in God, say they are "spiritual," even say they have a personal relationship with Jesus and try to live according to his words--but they don't go to church and don't want to be part of a church.
There are all kinds of theological and logical problems with this thinking, but in this land of the free and home of the not-always-so-brave, it's a common thing to hear. Theology and logic aside, Jeff points out a very practical problem with this thinking: If people who say they believe just stop being part of a church, eventually there will be no churches to help these people who show up at churches asking for help. People seem to expect the churches to be there if they need them, but they don't see why it matters for them to commit to being there for others.
Hmmmm....He has a point.
Meanwhile, I'm glad there was a church for Michael that I met this evening. I hope he was teling the truth. I hope he will be able to follow through and continue getting his life going in a better direction. I hope he will continue to pray, and to find nice, caring people in churches.
Maybe someday he will have what we often call "a church home." Maybe it will be the one just up the street, as he indicated he hoped to see me again there.
And my guess is that if he does make that church, or any church, his home, he will remember better than I do sometimes that anything he has was given to him. My guess is that people coming for help will find it if they ask him.
You know, tonight's sermon was on prayer. And I'm realizing that this is not just a bunch of hopes, maybes, and guesses. It's a prayer.
It's a prayer.