So…John and I went to church this morning. Not in the way I was raised to, by walking through the doors of a building and putting my thirty dollars in the offering plate. Not by singing hymns or praying with my mouth. Not by listening to a sermon or getting involved in a discussion of theology, but…we did go to church in the way that matters to me.
Yesterday, John and I were joking around about starting the Church of Waffles. Our idea was to buy an old church and convert it into a restaurant. We’d run a regular business at the breakfast hour, serving overpriced pastries at an excellent profit to socially-minded customers, then use the profits to run a high-quality free soup kitchen in the afternoon. I’m no restauranteer, but if I were, it’s an idea I think I would put a lot of time, energy, and money into establishing. I don’t feel at home in church communities these days for a number of reasons, but one principle I will always believe in is the importance of loving your neighbor. The problem is that loving your neighbor isn’t always an easy thing to put into action when the biggest opportunity you typically have to show love is the common courtesy of holding a door or letting another driver into traffic ahead of you.
Today John and I got a chance to put kindness into action in one of the most uncomfortable ways possible: a stranger asked us for help that required us to go out of our way.
We had gone out to run a few errands that had needed doing for a while. As we were finishing up fueling the car, an elderly man who wasn’t really dressed for the weather approached the car. I was sitting inside as he spoke to John, but I heard him explain that his car had died in the parking lot of the drugstore next door and he, being 87, wasn’t sure he could make it home. He needed a ride.
Being asked for a ride, even by a seemingly harmless older man, is a disconcerting, even scary, thing in a day and age where people are too isolated to feel like a community. At the least, John and I are too isolated from people to feel like a part of the community, so it’s unnerving to us to be approached by strangers. All the same, we opened the door and welcomed this man into our car, but instead of taking the two minutes to drive him up the street, we went to look at his car next door.
John and I have had a wealth of experience in having our cars towed for leaving them in business parking lots while we were in Portland, so John was concerned that the man’s car might be towed. We were just going to talk to the manager of the drugstore and make sure the car would be okay there until the mechanic opened up Monday morning. In talking to the man, however, we thought the problem might just be his battery, so we pulled up next to his car and went rummaging through the trunk for jumper cables.
To anyone watching from the outside, the whole thing was probably fairly comic. Neither John nor I had ever jumped a car without the help of someone experienced, so we spent ten minutes reading the instructions on the cables and John’s car manual trying to find the engine block to ground the last cable before we discovered a small bit of print that substituted “engine block” for “an unpainted piece of metal as far away from the battery as possible.” While we were doing this, the poor man we were helping was so stressed out by the situation that he thought he had lost his keys, which turned out to be in his pocket.
When we finally got the cables sorted and hooked up, I stood about ten feet back, somewhat afraid that the cars would explode when John started his car. They didn’t, thank goodness, so I went around to the other man’s door to have him start his car. When I had seen how upset he was about his keys, I had encouraged him to sit in his car to stay warm and relaxed while we were reading the manuals, and it almost broke my heart to see the way he was clutching his keys, as if he were afraid of doing something wrong with them. The car didn’t start when he first put the key in and turned it, and that’s when I saw what I should have thought to check in the first place.
Every automatic car I have ever driven has had the safety feature of not starting if the transmission isn’t solidly in park. More than once, I have called Dad in a panic because I thought my battery was dead. When the man turned his key and I didn’t hear even the tell-tale click of a dead battery, I looked at his shifter and saw, sure enough, that the gear was in between park and reverse. I reached past him to shift it forward and when I had him try the ignition again, the car started with a purr like a happy kitten. I’m hardly a mechanic, but I don’t think the battery was ever the problem.
It would have been a very funny story if this man hadn’t been so distressed, and worse, so terribly upset that he needed to ask for help. It’s so much easier to give people your time and energy than it is to put them at ease and convince them that such resources are freely given gifts, no debt attached. I know well enough how hard it can be to receive those gifts. As I watched the man drive away, waving at us thankfully but still unhappy, I didn’t feel satisfied that we had met our ethical obligation of care for someone in need. Even now, though, I’m not sure what else we could have done.
And that was our church service today, the opportunity to care for someone in need. I was struck to the heart by a sense of how much people really need other people. Loving our neighbors, doing unto the least of these–that’s the practical heart of faith. Loving our neighbors as much as they need, however, isn’t as clear and straightforward a path as I wish it could be.