Vacation Notes 3, June 26, 2009

I didn’t really expect to run into Jesus and Mary at an Alabama rest area it 11:00 PM.

I’d driven to Montgomery to see a baseball game with a friend and I was on my way back to the Microtel where Cynthia and I were staying just outside Birmingham. I was hungry and needed a pit stop, so I pulled into the rest area just north of Clanton. I’d made my visit to the facility and was on my way back to the car, when a young woman, early 20s I’d guess, walked up and asked if I’d like to “buy a rang jes’ to hep me out?” An experienced sucker, I smiled and said a curt “No thank you.” Something about the way she silently echoed my “No” as I turned away made me begin to suspect that I’d made a mistake.

As I rummaged through the cooler in my back seat for something to forestall the temptation to stop at the next exit for fast food, I noticed that the young woman, I’ll call her “Mary” for convenience, was walking into the facilities building with a little boy who looked to be three or four years old. I’ll call him “Jesus”…for convenience. I approached her and asked, “What kind of trouble has you trying to sell a ring in the middle of the night at a rest stop?” She told me, barely controlling tears, that she and her husband had “busted up” in Mobile and she didn’t have enough money for gas to get her to her parents’ home in Kentucky. I gave her $20 and, in my sternest fatherly voice, told her, “don’t do anything stupid and be careful.”

Before I’d driven three miles, the thoughts began to swirl in my head, “What kind of hospitality was that? What if that had been one of your daughters? Why didn’t you have her follow you to the next exit, get something to eat for her and the little boy, fill up her tank, and get them a room for the night at a motel?” It was too late by then of course. By the time I might have turned around and made my way back to the rest area, they’d have been long gone.

So, in a new version of the parable of the Good Samaritan, there’s a new character: first the priest who past by on the other side, then the Levite who likewise passed by on the other side. Then along comes Ric who gives him twenty bucks and tells him “Don’t do anything stupid.”

Clearly, greeting each stranger as Christ is not yet reflexive for me. I can only pray that a kinder Samaritan came along at a subsequent rest stop.

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5 thoughts on “Vacation Notes 3, June 26, 2009

  1. Apologies, Ric–I’d not realized I’d posted the same day as you! The June 26th in the title misled me, I fear.

    Do you think it’s good to recognize Mary and Jesus even in con-artists? I’ve experienced more than once a dramatic, urgent need–woman or father with child–voiced the way you describe, as if in a state of crisis. Then I’ve seen the same person do the same routine the next week, the next month, in the same neighborhood.

    Once a man with his son tried to get into a building I lived in, late at night–two people I’d never seen before–as if they’d been locked out (as if getting into the building would somehow let them into their apartment without keys). The looks of pleading were awful. But I sensed danger, so I walked upstairs without letting them in. There were many muggings and murders there in the south side of Chicago, and more activity of late outside my apartment building.

    Downtown I’d sometimes refer those asking me for money to my friend Kevin, who worked at a Presbyterian church downtown and whose job it was to distribute cash and information about resources to the homeless. Once those asking me knew Kevin already, and we had a lively chat about him.

    It’s hard to know when hospitality is best expressed as wise self-protection, though when there’s no physical danger at hand, I can see that it might be better to give recklessly.

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  2. Yes, Amy I do think it’s important to recognize Christ in everyone, and in this particular case I don’t really think that “Mary” was a con artist–I’ve had lots of experience with those! Now, how to behave, even as we recognize Jesus in the individual, is another matter. Peter once said, “Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have I give you.” Enabling with dollars for booze or a fix is probably not the best answer. “How involved am I willing to become?” becomes the big question, and there’s no easy or blanket answer. In this particular case, I still wish I’d provided at least a meal and a tank of gas. The cash I gave her was the easy way out.

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  3. I’d probably have felt the same in your shoes. In Chicago, when I wouldn’t have been able to sit and eat with each homeless person who asked for money, I felt best when I could direct someone to a particular address for a shelter or meal. I’d feel even better if I worked for a shelter, or as a social worker reaching out to connect folks to resources. But I’m also aware–in part through having had a housemate with schizophrenia for several years, and in part through conversations with one woman my Lutheran Volunteer Corps housemates let sleep at our house some nights until her gangrene bothered us too much–that some, including some who are mentally ill, prefer the streets to a bed in a building with rules.

    I suppose the question circulating in my mind right now is: how do we expend our energies, individually and collectively, in the face of so much need in so many directions? The faces of Christ and Mary are everywhere, alas–even in the forests and the species going extinct. I’d appreciate your own life wisdom on this front–recognizing there’s no one-size-fits-all answer here, either.

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  4. Amy, I think on the environmental front as with the human front–and at some point they must become inseparable-we treat them all as Christ as they appear before us. Some will appear with enough frequency to wear grooves in our souls and prompt ongoing commitment. It’s much more a matter of obedience than choice ultimately.

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  5. Yes, I can see that discernment of how to use our life energies is more like obedience than like choice. Even the “choice” to enter a challenge beyond the familiar–to go to a protest for the first time, to take a job working on an issue we don’t yet know much about (etc.)–even those choices can come from some impulse that we don’t understand, something driving us to a larger awareness of the world and what its well-being requires. Something Spirit-driven.

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