“I know I can’t help every needy person I see. So, where do I start?”
A stranger wandered into the Sunday morning service. I was so wrapped up in my own concerns that I didn’t notice him at first. I was upset that my brother was teaching Sunday school in a run-down church in Little Burgundy, a low-income area of Montreal’s downtown. He was supposed to be sitting with me. It bothered me that I had to sit alone in the pew.
It wasn’t until my brother’s girlfriend, Santina, slid into the pew and said, “Do you see that man?” that I was aware of anything unusual. I hadn’t seen him and I didn’t know where to look. “Over there, at the end of the altar,” she pointed.
A weathered man in worn-out clothes and floppy overboots knelt on one knee below the choir. They were singing, “Crown Him with many crowns.” Tears gleamed from his white stubble.
I watched in wonder. There were hundreds of people there that morning, but no one seemed to know how to respond to this stranger. He made me uncomfortable with his excessive emotion. I wanted someone to help him. Or maybe I just wanted him to be gone. He continued to cry alone, unaware of our polite church practices. We all waited for someone else, maybe an authority figure, to do something. Oddly, the choir and the congregation stood to their feet and moved on to another song as he continued to mumble and cry. No one made a move toward him. His chest was now heaving, his sobs drowned out by the joyous congregational singing.
I felt anxious, desperate for someone—anyone—to do something. Didn’t anyone else feel the tension? Didn’t they want the disruptive behaviour to end as much as I did? How could we enjoy the service with this going on? Maybe they were just blocking him out. After all, I didn’t see him until Santina pointed him out to me.
How often, since that day, have I felt that same way? Maybe you have too. A person with an obvious need comes into our field of vision and, instead of acting, we are struck with instant paralysis. Why do we delay?
Is it our constant busyness that makes us overlook the obvious needs around us? Maybe we think our lives are complicated enough, that it’s too much trouble to get involved in the troubles of others. “If I look away,” we think, “maybe someone else will step in.”
I’ve come to believe that I cannot wait for someone else to do what I should do. I need to act rather than expect someone else to act. I’m aware of my limitations. There are only so many hours in a day, and I have limited resources. I know I can’t help every needy person I see. So where do I start?
Perhaps that was what the Apostle Paul was getting at when he wrote, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10). It’s not that believers deserve help more than anyone else. I think he is saying, “Start with the people who are right under your nose!” Don’t look over the heads of people within your sphere of influence. Sometimes it’s harder to do good to people we know, who are at hand, than it is to love people whom we do not know, who are far away. Could Paul be saying that if we start with our families, our church, and our community, then in every place where there is a believer, the love of Jesus will be shared in personal and practical ways?
I felt ashamed by my inaction during that church service, watching that man weep while I waited for an authority figure to take charge. After the closing prayer, I sheepishly crossed the street to head toward the Metro. Again, as if she were my conscience, Santina asked, “Shouldn’t we do something?” I looked back and saw an image that burned itself into my memory.
The man was hugging the railing on the bottom step of the church stairs as people milled about him. A church leader was showing off his new motorcycle to his friends. He revved the engine, and grey smoke billowed directly into the face of the broken man. Couldn’t they see him? Was he invisible to their eyes? The man sputtered, spit, and rubbed his eyes on his jacket sleeve.
Now we had
to do something. At the very least, move him out of the exhaust that was burning his eyes. We lifted the man by his elbows and walked him up the steps. He was saying something, but I couldn’t make it out over the roar of the motorcycle. When we reached the top step, he looked past us with bleary blue eyes and asked, “Pray for me?”
We walked with him to the front of the sanctuary. Again he knelt on one knee. We knelt with him, and each of us prayed out loud for him. I’d like to say that a dramatic change came over him. It didn’t. We handed him a tissue. He wiped his eyes, then turned to leave. We followed him out to the street and offered to buy him lunch. He refused and kept on walking. Then he stopped and turned to look at us. He paused for a moment, then pointed his finger at us and said, “Remember Vincent.”
I can’t say that I have helped every hurting person I’ve met since then, but I did learn a lesson that Sunday. And I can say that I’ve never forgotten Vincent.
Dr. Ron Powell is a youth ministry professor and the father of two teenagers. He lives in Edmonton, AB.
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This article appears in the January/February 2015 issue of testimony.
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