Alright… It’s been a week or so, and I think I’m finally ready to write about this. It was one of those events that, if we’re open and honest with ourselves, we all come to at some point or another in our lives. In fact, I would argue that if you’ve never had an experience like the one I’m about to share with you, then you probably haven’t spent enough time or energy self-examining your beliefs and worldview.
Two weekends ago my wife Michelle and I went to Columbia, SC, to celebrate our second wedding anniversary. Ooh, Columbia… Exciting… I know, but we both like cities, so we thought we’d enjoy walking around and exploring. And we did. Except for getting back to our hotel after dinner on Friday night.
We had meandered all over downtown Columbia that afternoon, probably walking 4 or 5 miles total by the time we sat down to dinner. The restaurant we picked out was in the Five Points district of Columbia, which was about 2 miles from our hotel. We didn’t plan very well, and as our food was arriving I looked out the door of the restaurant to see that it was raining. More than that, we were having a full-on thunderstorm complete with lightning, thunder, and a heavy downpour. Of course, we had no umbrella, and since we were walking we had a long way to go to get back to our hotel after we ate. We decided against dropping the money it would have cost us to get a cab, and instead decided to have a little adventure and walk back through the rain. We thought it would be an interesting story to tell later.
We didn’t realize until we were probably half a mile into our trek back that the route we had selected took us through a less-than-touristy part of Columbia. In fact, much of the area we walked through looked run-down and borderline impoverished. As is typical in most American cities, the majority of people who seemed to live in this impoverished urban area were African American.
Now, I need to say here that Michelle and I were both born and raised in suburbs just south of Atlanta, GA. We both attended public schools that were a diverse mixture of races, nationalities, and religions. In fact, both of us grew up with friend-groups that were culturally, religiously, and politically diverse. So we have always prided ourselves on being above racism and other forms of discrimination.
But here we were in an unfamiliar city, walking down a dark street at night, in a thunderstorm, and it wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that we were both thinking, “Lord, please just let us get back to our hotel safely. Please don’t let any of these people come up to us. Please just keep them away.” We had already been approached earlier in the day by a man asking for money, so the thought was forefront in both our minds that we really didn’t want to be in that kind of situation at night on a lonely street.
That’s when it happened.
As we were walking down a dimly-lit street towards a railroad underpass, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. I looked over to see a black man with a small umbrella start to cross the street. It was a four-lane street with a turn lane in the middle. As I watched, this guy was dodging 5 lanes of traffic to come over, and I realized that he would end up right behind us on the sidewalk. I could feel Michelle tense up as she saw him, too. I started tensing up and cautiously reaching for my pocketknife. I was just thinking, “This guy might mug us and take our stuff, but he’s not going to sneak up on us.” As he got closer I could see that his clothes were dirty. He hadn’t shaved in awhile. He was wearing a baseball cap, but had a plastic shopping bag over it to help keep the water off of his head. His tennis shoes were old and worn. His eyes were bloodshot, and the whites were a little more yellow than white. By all appearances, this was a homeless man, the last person we wanted to see on that dark, lonely street.
And then the last thing I ever expected to happen, happened.
“Here, take my umbrella.”
What?! Michelle said something about us not having any money to give him.
He responded, “Don’t worry about that. You need it more than I do. Take it.”
We stammered our thanks and took off down the street again. We were still spooked by our surroundings, so we made our way as quickly as we could back to the hotel. After we got back, got warm, and put on some dry clothes, we sat down on the bed and there was only one emotion I could feel – shame.
I felt ashamed because I had completely prejudged our situation and this random, kind man we encountered. I, who had grown up in a diverse area and always prided myself on my love and compassion for others, who (to be perfectly honest) had always looked down on people who displayed racism, had feared this man almost to the point of pulling a knife on him simply because we were spooked, and he was black and looked homeless.
I felt ashamed because, deep in my heart, I know that if the situation had been reversed we probably would not have shown him the same kindness. If we had had the umbrella and saw that he needed it, even if we were only a couple of block from our hotel, I don’t think we would have stopped and given it to him. A homeless man dodged 5 lanes of traffic to give us what must have been one of only a few possessions in his life. He dodged traffic to show us kindness and compassion that I know we probably wouldn’t have shown him.
I felt ashamed because, in my arrogance, I never thought I could be one of “the least of these” that Jesus talked about in Matthew 25. I always thought that, as the privileged middle class white male, it was my responsibility to go out and find poor souls to be kind and show compassion to. I never in a million years thought that I would be the stranger who needed shelter and was shown kindness and compassion.
And when I realized these things, something profound happened in me. My self-image as the righteous do-gooder Christian who brings the message of salvation to people less fortunate than me was shattered.
I now have a new understanding that the Gospel is, completely and for all time, for each one of us. It’s not something that we need until we are saved. The Gospel is something that we need until we are dead. The redemptive, sanctifying, life-changing work of Jesus Christ is never finished in us while we live and breathe.
On that night in Columbia, I learned that the Holy Spirit of Christ is still trying to teach me something new. That night he spoke to me through a homeless man on the street. How is he trying to teach you?