The other night, I was a block away from my house when I saw an older, heavy-set, white female with a cane stumbling down the sidewalk, trying unsuccessfully to hold onto three bags of groceries. I rolled down my window and asked her if she needed a ride.
“Oh, yes, yes,” she said with a New Jersey accent, slurring her words and almost crying. Her dyed, jet black hair was wrapped in a scarf; and her eyes peered out from behind thick, black mascara. She appeared to be seriously drunk.
“Oh my God, you are so amazing,” she said, climbing in. “Jesus sent you to me just now. These groceries are so heavy, and my foot is bleeding because I had this foot surgery a while back, and then the other day my toenail came off, and it hurts so bad.”
The Discomfort Zone
From the start, I was outside my comfort zone, but she was so disabled and drunk that I figured I was probably safe. So I asked her to tell me where she lived, and as we headed there, she emphatically rambled on about her broken car that had been in the shop for two months “because of a pothole — a pothole!” And she repeatedly assured me that her successful son wasn’t a drug user, even though he lived “with two guys who smoke herb.”
When she told me a story about a nice woman who gave her $200 to help repair her car, I figured it was just a matter of time before she started hitting me up for cash. So I changed the subject, and then mercifully, we arrived at her apartment in the projects. But then I suddenly found myself agreeing to carry her groceries in.
“Oh my God, thank you,” she said. “You are just amazing.”
Although I had to park illegally, I was secretly pleased with it, because it gave me a good excuse for not sticking around — and I was going to need it.
It took several minutes to hike through the parking lot and up the stairs to her apartment — partly because she was disabled and there was no elevator, and partly because she kept stopping to talk. In one instance, when she learned that I’m originally from Mississippi, she stopped, threw her sweaty body onto mine, hugged me, and said, “I love you! I used to live in Brookhaven, Mississippi!”
“Oh, wow,” I said with mild enthusiasm, “that’s interesting. But let’s keep moving — I don’t want my car to get towed.”
“Oh that’s right!” she said, scurrying up the steps with her cane.
Inside her neatly-arranged apartment, the smell of cigarettes was overpowering; and when I put the milk in the fridge, I noticed that the only food in there were old desserts. She kept trying to talk to me, but I wanted to get away; so I reminded her again that I was illegally parked and needed to go. Then she said she had one more thing to show me before I left: her artwork.
Running Away from the Star
Among a few other crudely-rendered paintings was a painting of a woman sprawled out on a park bench in the middle of the night. A massive star was over her head.
“This painting,” she said, with her voice quivering, “is a picture of me – when I was homeless. And that,” she said, pointing to the star and crying, “is the star of Bethlehem, watching over me.”
Then she looked at me like I was supposed to say something. I was speechless, but it wasn’t because I was particularly moved. I just have a lot of trouble feeling compassion for people when they’re drunk-crying. So I just looked at the dark mascara running down her weathered face, tried to look polite, and wished the whole thing could be over.
She kept talking, though, saying, “Then I think about how the Savior of the world — Jesus — was born in a stable with a bunch of dirty animals, and He was homeless too — just like me.”
I stared into the woman’s pitiful, drunken eyes and thought, Wow, I’m looking into the face of Jesus — and I’m so glad I’m illegally parked so I can get out of here.
When I reminded the woman that I needed to go move my car, she told me her name was Carla, and then she wrote her name and phone number down on a Macy’s coupon. Then she began tugging down on her dress, revealing some cleavage and a tattoo, and she said she loved me — at which point I promptly said goodbye and bolted down the hallway.
The whole episode reminded me of the ways we do missions in the church. We see an easy, relatively-safe, one-time project that genuinely needs our help. Maybe it’s a trip to a third-world country to build a house, or raking the yard of an elderly woman, or traveling to West Virginia to do a backyard Bible club for some poor, Appalachian kids.
We feel good about ourselves as we’re doing God’s work — and it really is His work — but after spending a little bit of time with the needy, we get uncomfortable; and we’re secretly grateful that we’ve got a reason to leave: we’ve got to catch a flight back home, school starts in two weeks, the project has run its course — whatever. And the reason we’re grateful to get out of there is because we know we’re in over our heads.
We don’t have the time, patience, or emotional energy to provide what these people need — much less what they want. Because if we really wanted to do mission work to serve the poor, we’d be taking care of the needy people back home every week. Come to think of it, if I really wanted to serve the poor, I might not be visiting Carla, but I’d probably be spending a whole lot more time in her neighborhood.
I hate to admit it, but while I’m comfortable with my little 30-minute parachute missions to carry groceries, I don’t want to get too close to the messiness of the Carlas of the world. I realize my attitude is so ugly and prideful and when contrasted with the words of Jesus, who said:
“When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12-14).
When I read those words of Jesus, I feel a little guilty at first. We have people over for dinner pretty regularly, and they’re almost always our friends or relatives. But then it hits me: Jesus isn’t trying to put me on a guilt trip or overwhelm me. He’s not even asking me to start a grocery delivery ministry.
Jesus is just asking for a dinner invitation — and if I’m really going to follow through on issuing it to “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” without the whole thing being really awkward, it probably means I’m going to need to build some new relationships.