I must confess I have struggled with some significant prejudices during my life. I am so thankful for God’s grace that has broken through and continues to break through the hard shell of my presuppositions about others. Yet I know that even now I hold some opinions about others, both individuals and groups, that are untrue. Or at the very least they are incomplete.
When all is said and done, I will be accountable for my growth and change, not theirs.
There is one event from my past that has forever shaped my views regarding my own opinions and presuppositions. It is not a long story, and it might seem like an unlikely event to have made such an impact on me. But I assure you it did, and unfortunately it begins with my own narrow and selfish attitudes of which I am certainly not proud.
More than a decade ago I served at a wonderful church in another city. We often had people come into the church office asking for financial assistance for things like rent, utilities, and gasoline. We called it “benevolence,” and we had a very limited amount of funds with which to help people. More often than not, those who received our help were never to be seen again. Some even carried a list of churches in their hands, with those who had refused to help them already marked off. On some occasions we felt duped. It was a “ministry” that produced little fruit for the amount of time it took to “deal with” a person, and none of the ministers enjoyed it.
So we had set up a rotation of sorts, which ensured that no one had to “help” two different benevolence-seekers in a row. Our processes and boundaries for helping people were insufficient, but like most churches we did not know how to address them. Even worse than our system was our attitudes, however. And mine was worst of all.
But God, as they say.
One day a man came into the church to ask for help, and I was the “minister on duty.” I heard the bell ring on the church door, and soon after I could tell our receptionist was having an awkward conversation. I peeked out into the lobby, and saw a large Native American man with long black hair, wearing blue jeans and a leather rope-belt with a t-shirt tucked into them.
Our receptionist came into my office and confirmed that the man was indeed a benevolence-seeker. She also informed me that he claimed to be deaf, which explained the communication breakdowns I had overheard.
As I went out to greet the man, I saw that he was carrying a small notepad which he used to communicate.
He opened the notebook and wrote, “Hello, my name is David.”
I replied, “Hello, my name is Eric. What can I help you with today?”
He wrote, “Nice to meet you Eric. How are you?”
I replied, “I am well. What can I help you with today?”
He wrote, “Do you have a wife? Children?”
I replied, “Yes, I have both.”
He wrote, “How many children? How old are they? Boys or girls?”
I replied, “I have two boys – 4 and 1. What brought you in today?”
You can see where this is going. The conversation went on like this for a while. Me trying to get to the point, and David treating me like an actual person and attempting to build a relational bridge. The truth is, David was delightful. He was genuinely kind, gracious, and engaging. Not to mention he was proving to be a much better conversationalist than I, even though he was only able to do so with pen and paper.
I eventually let my guard down, and soon I was showing him pictures of my family. He promised to return the next week and show me pictures of his family also. I must admit, I still had doubts that would happen. Our conversation went on for several minutes and pages in his notebook, before David finally asked for something specific.
He wrote, “Does the church have milk, butter, and eggs?”
I replied, “Well, not really here. But we have a voucher system with the store down the street and I can get you up to $50.00 worth of groceries. Will that help?”
David agreed, and we set out for the supermarket. When we entered the store, David was on a mission. He walked at such a brisk pace that I struggled to keep up. Within minutes he was holding in his hand milk, butter, and eggs. He looked at me as if to say, “I’m ready!”
I asked for his notebook and wrote to him, “That will only cost a few dollars. We can spend up to $50.00. What else do you need?”
He looked at me with as stern and serious a stare as I have ever beheld. He took back the notebook and wrote, “I told you I needed milk, butter, and eggs. I’m a man of my word, and that’s all I need. Thank you.”
David and I checked out and said our goodbyes with a hug of newfound friendship. As you might imagine, that experience left a mark on me that has never faded. He was both humble and dignified, his very real needs were coupled with boundless integrity.
The next time David came to the church it was to show me pictures of his children, just as he promised. For the next couple of years, David visited me multiple times at the church, and we celebrated lots of things in each others’ lives including his new job and other victories. David became a true friend, and I am not the same person I was before that first encounter.
Sometimes I still get entrenched in my opinions that are so often not rooted in true knowledge, but rather assumptions and insecurities. In those moments, God often reminds me of David, and reminds me that I still have much to learn about love for my neighbor.
FURTHER READING: On the danger of incomplete opinions: A Different Lens – The “Other”