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by Andrea DeWard
I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me
Matthew 25:35-36, NRSV
A bearded man with a cardboard sign often stands along a route I drive. On the coldest of Michigan mornings, his thick canvas coat makes a valiant effort to shield him from the blowing snow. After a handful of sporadic interactions passing dollars or snacks through my car window, I introduced myself and then asked his name.
With one syllable the stranger on the corner became a local acquaintance. A name reaches across the unknown to create a connection. A name gives us identity and helps us identify.
“Nice to meet you, Todd.”
Now each time I approach the exit ramp I peer forward to see if he’s there at the end. If the light is green I try to catch his eye and wave as I pass. If it’s red, I lower my window while stopped; though I don’t have money or food to share every time, I greet him with a smile.
I haven’t seen him for a few weeks, and every time I roll by the empty grass, I wonder about him. Last week I was in the car with my family, my husband exiting off the highway with the busy evening traffic, coming to a stop a few cars back in the middle lane. Looking past the cars on our left, I noticed there was a young woman at the spot. Still no Todd, but who is this? Something about her countenance pointed to enough hardship for two lifetimes, yet she seemed so young. I inhaled sharply when I saw her sign.
“Bet you can’t hit me with a quarter (or food).”
Like the priest passing by an injured stranger, I averted my eyes and faced forward, uncomfortable. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a semi-driver on our right make a motion and call out his tall window. Was he actually going to throw something at her? This was awful. I couldn’t quite hear with our windows up and radio on, but I grimaced, wondering what crude or rude thing he might be saying or gesturing. Then his voice rose above the noise.
“Would you like an orange?”
I turned to look at him fully through my passenger window. This traveling Samaritan’s expression conveyed compassion, like he’d seen a lot of pain and shown a lot of grace over the years and miles of trucking. He extended his arm from the rig’s perch, offering an orange. Our gaze followed his as the woman weaved in front of us between cars and caught the gently tossed fruit. The light turned green and she hurried back to the other side as cars started to move between her and us. My 11 year old said out loud what all of us were thinking.
“Wow, I wasn’t expecting that!”
I’m back to driving the school route and the young woman is a recent fixture on the side of the road, where Todd used to stand. There is an edge to her “hit me” sign and I don’t know how to engage it or her. The message seems humiliating, willing to endure degradation and abuse in order to have life. At the same time it is proud and defiant, a non-violent protest against a system where the gap is ever widening between the haves and the have-nots.
That week I spent several hours at Biggby Coffee crafting a responsive reading for my husband’s jail chaplaincy work at Forgotten Man Ministries. In it I used “the least of these” from Matthew 25:31-46 in connection to the jail inmates, praying for God to help us see the person of Jesus within each person we encounter.
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison,
and did not take care of you?”
Then he will answer them,
“Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of
the least of these, you did not do it to me”
Matthew 25:44-45, NRSV
As I approached the exit on my drive home that day, these words from scripture, heard numerous times since childhood, took hold in a new way. I’d had no problems or hesitations stopping for Todd and many others over the years, but had been avoiding this woman, strangely intimidated to look at her or her bold sign. I insisted, mostly to myself, that of course I would stop if it were Jesus. I was instantly convicted.
“If you say you wouldn’t pass by Jesus, then you’d better not pass by her.”
I pulled into the lane next to her and rolled down my window. Once I looked her in the eyes, full face, she looked completely different. The hardness that I had perceived in her became soft and I saw her as an individual person, not just a category of unknown person. A name reaches across the unknown to create a connection. A name gives us identity and helps us identify.
Thanks to my friend Meika who prompted me to start writing on this topic last spring when she shared this poem from John Stott:
I was hungry and you formed a humanities group to discuss my hunger. I was imprisoned and you crept off quietly to your chapel and prayed for my release. I was naked and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance. I was sick and you knelt and thanked God for your health. I was homeless and you preached to me the spiritual love of God. I was lonely and you left me alone to pray for me. You seem so holy, so close to God, But I am still very hungry – and lonely – and cold.
Andrea DeWard is a pastor married to a pastor parenting tweens. With ADD. Now say that really fast 4 times. Exceptionally present in the moment, running late for the next, shining in a crisis, overshadowed by the daily grind. Naturally, the mantra “We have to work at this daily” hangs prominently in our family’s home. I’m an introverted Enneagram 4 who loves being up front speaking to new audiences (one of these things is not like the other?) I write consistently on my iPhone and sporadically on my blog at andreadeward.com with the simple guiding principle GoShowLove. Grace abounds.
Thank you for this soul-jarring piece.
Excellent. Again. Thank you.