Earlier tonight, just after my church’s Wednesday Evening Bible Study dismissed, a man entered are building. He had a fairly neat appearance but still somewhat disheveled, enough that I figured he was seeking some sort of benevolence help. My congregation is located along one of the busier streets in Memphis in a lower economic section of the city. I introduced myself and asked his name (I always try to speak to people like they are important and are a friend), and he said his name was Richard (if that was the truth). He said that his family was stuck in Jackson, MS and he needed enough gas to get him to Jackson and back (which is a three hour round trip). The church agreed that I would take the church credit card to the gas station and fill this man’s gas tank up for him.
While getting the credit card from the church office along with my friend, colleague, and mission partner, there was a commotion taking place. It turned out that this man, who called himself Richard, had stolen a purse from my friend’s wife in front of her children. Nobody was physically harmed, the man got away, and my friend’s wife was able to recover her purse and all of her belongings.
After the police came and finished filling out their investigative report, my family gathered with my friend’s family and another family and I led a prayer thanking God that there was no physical harm done to anyone, as such a scenario could have turned out much worse. We also prayed for Richard that he would be released from what ever evil presence captivated him so much that he was willing to commit a crime and endanger the lives of others for his own sake.
Sounds good, huh? But I was really dishonest. We are taught to pray for our enemies, to love our enemies, etc… That is what I wanted to do but in all honesty, when I was praying, I was hoping that Richard would be caught and would receive the full weight of the law. I was really wishing that I could have caught him so that I might be able to give him a little “old-school” justice. I was… You get the point!
And now as I have had some time to reflect, I wonder. I wonder why I did not see this coming. After all, he was a stranger. But I have been taught to welcome the stranger (i.e. Matt. 25.31-46). Well maybe I should not have been so trusting of this man. But I try not to judge people based on the present status but rather based on what they could be in Christ (i.e. 2 Cor. 5.16 – heck, that’s even part of my ministry philosophy). And while I struggle, I must not forget the very important thing – my actions, good or bad, affect more people than just myself.
So why am I ranting about this. Well, at my church I just finished preaching a series of sermons on how we should treat the poor, weak, disconnected, and needy individuals in our society, trying to encourage greater faith in ministering to those people who sometimes scare us middle-class white folks. The problem is that most of these people in our neighborhood also have personal demons and addictions that make them a possible danger to be around.
So I continue to struggle. I struggle to treat these people with grace, dignity, love, and genuine compassion despite what ever reasons I suspect may have played a role in forming their present lifestyle. I struggle because the life of Jesus tells me and calls me to welcome these people without reservation, but my experience (especially when it’s your friend’s wife who is the victim) tells me to be cautious and never trust.
And so I continue to struggle…