Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. — Luke 6:30
“Were you expecting two Muslim women at church this morning?” The question came from a curious church member yesterday morning about forty-five minutes before worship. I looked at her blankly. “Um, no, no I was not.” I had been just settling in to do the usual last-minute editing and printing of sermons and worship resources. It had been a full week in all kinds of ways and I was tired. I had been anticipating (i.e., desperately hoping for) a pretty straightforward Sunday morning. Alas, it seemed that a straightforward Sunday morning was not in the cards.
I walked out into the foyer and was greeted by two women, one younger, one older. It was a daughter and her mother. I vaguely recognized them from various refugee events I participated in three years ago during the height of our city’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis. I had a pretty good idea what they wanted to talk to me about. I wasn’t wrong. In halting English, the young woman made her case. I have a brother and a sister… They have money… They want to come to Canada… But people say we need a church to sign papers… Please, can you help?
I’ve had many conversations like this over the last three years. Each one carries its own special brand of sadness and longing. Each time, I say the same thing. Well, you see, it’s more complicated than just signing a few papers… I can’t make a decision like this on my own… I’m not sure if our church can do this… I’ll make a few phone calls… I’ll get back to you. Each time, I feel the same brand of resignation and helplessness. I’d like to help everyone who asks. But there are so many. And it’s complicated.
I looked over at the young woman’s mother sitting silently on a chair in our church foyer, eyes staring vacantly forward. I wondered how many situations like this she had been in already, reduced to sitting in strange places, hoping that her daughter’s fragmentary English could unlock the magic key to bring her family to Canada. A woman from our church was sitting with her, holding her hand in wordless solidarity. I smiled when I saw that.
I took down the young woman’s information. I promised her I would call. It felt (and still feels) like a useless response. I wished them well and watched them walk out the door. I trudged dejectedly back to my office to resume my regular duties. No sooner had I sat down when the phone rang. The number was from a local hotel. My heart sank a level lower. I’ve answered enough phone calls over the years to know that when someone’s phoning a church from a hotel on a Sunday morning, it’s rarely to find out what time the service starts. Again, I wasn’t wrong. My nine-year-old granddaughter and I had to leave our apartment because of a cockroach infestation… The landlord won’t give us back our damage deposit… I’ve used the last of my money to buy food and pay for last night’s hotel… We need to stay one more night before we can access social services tomorrow morning… Please, can you help?
I looked at the clock on the wall. It was now twenty minutes until the start of worship. I was feeling anxious and, truth be told, a little annoyed. I took down the details of her story along with her contact information. She asked me if I could give her an answer before check-out time at 11:00. I responded (probably more gruffly than I ought to have) that I was a pastor and this was a Sunday morning. I informed her that Sunday mornings are the time when churches usually conduct, you know, worship services and that I would not be able to get back to her by 11:00. She was silent for a minute before saying an abrupt “thanks” and hanging up. I sighed, printed off my documents, and went out to preach a sermon on contentment feeling anything but.
Over the next hour or so, we did what churches do during worship. We sang, we prayed, we listened, we confessed our sins, we were blessed out into another week. After the service, I went and spoke to a few deacons about the request for aid. They cheerfully said, “Sure, we can do that.” I smiled at their instinctive response. I envied it a little, truth be told. I can be a little cynical when it comes to calls like this. Like most (all?) pastors, I’ve been lied to and manipulated enough over the years to at least be wary. I don’t particularly like being cynical—I’d rather be the sort of person who says, “Sure, we can do that.” But, you know, it’s complicated.
I went into my office and called the woman back. I think she was surprised to hear from me. I agreed to meet her in half an hour at her hotel. They were waiting in the parking lot when I got there. The grandmother talked for nearly half an hour about her difficult life. Her granddaughter smiled shyly at me throughout. Her hair was matted, her dress dirty. She told me she didn’t like cockroaches. We went inside. I swiped my credit card ensuring them one more night. The hotel clerk told the little girl that she was in luck—the pool was open! She was pretty happy about that. So was I. God bless you, pastor, the grandmother said as I took my leave. I returned the blessing.
The drive home yesterday was a conflicted one. It can be easy to grumble about encounters like this (at least for me). Particularly in the context of the decline of the institutional church and report after report of people having no need of God or faith or Christianity, it can be easy to say, “Funny how nobody seems to be interested in the church unless they need something.” It can be easy to say, if only in the privacy of your own mind, “Have you thought about asking the mosque for help?” or “Have you ever considering making the church a part of your life other than when you need a hotel room for a night?” Yes, it can be very easy to think along these lines.
I’m trying to think along different lines today. I’m trying to give thanks for the fact that even in a cultural context where the church is often deemed irrelevant and antiquated (or worse), people still instinctively associate the community that bears Jesus’ name in the world with the possibility of help. At my best, it makes me proud that two Muslim women would show up at a Christian church on a Sunday morning with hope for their family. At my best, it makes me proud that a desperate grandmother would phone a church as her last resort. Do I like being treated like a vending machine or a bank? Not particularly. Do I wish people would be a bit more curious about the connection between the content of Christian belief and the ethic that our culture still so profoundly relies upon? Yup, I sure do. Would I prefer that “everyone who asks” might ask at some time other than half an hour before worship? Um, well, yeah…
But Jesus stubbornly speaks his uncomfortable, impossible words about giving to those who ask without demanding anything in return. And the fact that people still walk through church doors and pick up phones half an hour before worship in the desperate hope that there exists a community who might just do what he said is a sign that the church really has, against all odds, been about Jesus’ business since he turned us loose in the world.