At the end of my writing group on Sunday night, a gentleman walked into the room.
We were the only people left in the building, it was getting late, and I admit that my heart doubled up for a moment when I saw an unfamiliar face appear at the door. "Is there a service going on?" he asked. No, we told him; unfortunately, the last service had finished a couple of hours ago. But he didn't go away. He came inside. He sat in a chair.
He told us his story, and that he needed help.
I'm going to be honest: when people tell me they need help like this - money, a working phone, a place to stay for the night - my body tenses up. My mind doesn't know what to do. I jump through too many mental hoops, hoops that I'm sure the person wouldn't appreciate, that I know I wouldn't appreciate in their place. Is their story true? What will they do with the money? Is that even my business? What would Jesus do? Probably invite them to sleep in our guest bedroom. Am I going to do that? No. Is that because I'm a woman and have been conditioned to feel afraid? Because I'm too proud, too comfortable in my own life, too... not like Jesus?
No matter what, I know that I'm basically not going to be like Jesus in this situation. And I don't care for that about myself and yet at the same time, I feel it protects me. And yet Jesus didn't mean for us to be protected. (See what I mean about the mental hoops?)
It was quickly clear that the gentleman didn't mean any harm. But even still, my heart pounded in the midst of the surprise and of not knowing what to do.
I was so deeply strengthened by my fellow church members and writers. Not one of the four of them moved a muscle. They could have said, "Well, I have an early morning tomorrow, gotta go!" But they stayed in their seats. Not only that, they acted much more quickly than I did, pulling out their phones, asking him more about his situation, calling numbers and Googling local services, trying to figure out the best way to help on an empty Sunday night.
And I kept thinking: What can I do? What can I do? What can I do?
Smile at him.
He smiled back.
"What's your name?" I asked. He told us.
"What was your wife's name?" He'd said at the start that she'd passed away last fall.
Talk to him. Maybe parts of his story are blurry. So what? Treat him like the human being that he is. May he feel some sense of calm sitting in this room, even as his immediate future is so uncertain.
"Is that your church across the way, too?" he asked, pointing towards the sanctuary.
"Yep," I said, nodding. "That's where we hold worship in the morning. We hope you'll come sometime, if you can."
My friends and I continued to talk with him, trying to feel out what the best answer for a Sunday night would be. It was nearly an hour until we reached someone who could help more than we could (but, this little voice in my head asks, is that really true?). But as the gentleman prepared to leave, I knew there was one more thing that we could do.
"Can we say a prayer for you?" I asked, standing and moving closer to him. My eyes welled up even as I asked the question, even as he nodded vigorously. The honor of asking that question. "I'm just going to put my hand on your shoulder," I said, and did so. His shoulder was warm underneath his button-down shirt. Human. And so we all bowed our heads and I stuttered through a prayer - be with him on his journey, watch over him and guide him to whatever the next step might be, may he feel your presence and the presence of his beloved wife...
In my words, and the action of them leaving my mouth and touching the air, reaching his ears - I sensed the presence of the many who have lit the path for me. The many who have encouraged me to minister, before and even when I decided not to become an actual minister. Those who show me that I am still called to ministering in these small and simple and messy ways - and my belief that sometimes, this small and simply and messy ministering by us, as lay people, is the most powerful.
I know I got some things wrong in that unexpected hour. I stiffened and stumbled and didn't say, "Hey, let's go down to the village and I'll buy you some dinner and we can figure out what to do next."
But as we said "Amen," that moment felt like the only thing I could be sure I'd gotten right in life that day.