Tuesday, January 28, 2014

I See Christ

A parishioner of mine, David Theune, has been working on a project for a while. He, along with over 200 people in the Spring Lake community, read the book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy by Emily Bazelon. Several community initiatives came out of the project, one of the most interesting of which was the idea to put together a book with stories of empathy shared by people in our community. David e-mailed me, along with several other people, and asked if I might write something for the book. 

I spent about a week thinking about it, wondering what story I might tell, what I might say. And then, I wrote this...

My wife and I both are pretty busy people (as is most everyone these days). I am an Episcopal priest and she is finishing a graduate degree in Clinical Mental Health while also working part-time at a residential home for adults with various challenges. So, when we do get an opportunity to go away, just the two of us, it is always an immense gift.

This past November was our fifth wedding anniversary. Though previous anniversaries have always involved special trips of some sort, we felt the need to scale back this year and so did a weekend in Grand Rapids, using some hotel points I had accumulated through my work. We were walking around downtown Grand Rapids, in and out of stores, generally having a lovely afternoon together in the cold, brisk, downtown air.

As we walked, a man was sitting near a tree on the street and he asked me if I could spare a few dollars for a meal.

I think every person struggles with what to do in these situations. Do you give money if you have it? What if he spends it on something that will only hurt him further? If I give money to everyone, wouldn’t I wind up broke? My family pledges a percentage of our income to our church, isn’t that how we help the poor?

For me, since I very rarely even have cash on me, our cashless society has sort of become my “out.” I can simply say, “I’m so sorry, I don’t have any cash or change on me,” and then continue walking down the street, feeling slightly guilty until something else inevitably grabs my focus.

I was not raised to give the money away, in general, anyway. For some reason it wasn’t in the DNA of the religious tradition I grew up in.

Several years ago, when I was a college student pursuing my Bachelor of Science in Biblical Studies, I spent a summer living with a couple in Canton, MI. John and Joyce were my host family while I did a ministry internship at a congregation in Dearborn Heights.

One night we were downtown Detroit, getting ready to go to dinner at a restaurant near the new Tiger Stadium. We came out of the parking garage and a woman came up to us on crutches—one of her legs had been amputated. “Can you spare a few dollars?” she asked me, the college student studying Bible.

“No, I’m sorry,” I said awkwardly, as I cast a furtive glance away from her and walked on by.

But the couple I was staying with was behind me coming out of the garage. Joyce stopped to talk to the woman, immediately getting out her purse and fishing around to find a few dollars. She clasped them into the woman’s hand. The woman said thank you and went on her way. I stood there uncomfortably, watching this take place and waiting for John and Joyce to catch up with me.

Once they did, Joyce said simply, “Jared, you should always give money to people who ask you.” She smiled and we went into the restaurant.

She was very kind, almost matter-of-fact about it, but she singed my soul just a bit. She reminded me of something Jesus said, in Matthew 5:42, “Give to everyone who begs from you.”

Seems pretty clear and straightforward, unfortunately.

However, that was over ten years ago and in the time in between, I would give less and less. Society (and me) went increasingly cashless. I spent time working in Washington, DC, when I truly was confronted by people in need over and over again. I discovered that walking around in my clericals made me even more of an easy target.

So, eventually, I just kind of stopped. What I do to help the poor through the church must be enough, I rationalized to myself.

But this cold November afternoon, walking down that street in Grand Rapids with my wife, something broke in me. The man asked for money and I ignored him and kept walking down the sidewalk, but only a few paces in, I was struck and could not walk any further.

I turned around and walked back to him, reaching in my pocket for the $10 bill I knew was there from the change I had made for parking the night before. As I approached him, I smiled and handed him the cash.

“Thank you, sir,” he said. “Thank you.”

I held onto his hand and looked him in the eyes, deep in the eyes. “No,” I said, “Thank you. I want you to know that you stopped me today because you reminded me of Christ. I saw Jesus in you. Thank you for giving me that.” I felt a tear well up in my eyes. I brushed it away and rejoined my wife.

“I think I want to start keeping small amounts of cash on me,” I said to her.

A story is told about John the Almsgiver, Patriarch of Alexandria in the early 7th century. Someone applied for alms, but it was discovered by the office that he was applying in deceit, that the person did not actually need the money. The administrative official went to the patriarch and told him. John said, “Give unto him; he may be Our Lord in disguise.”

At its base, empathy means feeling the emotions of another, it means not letting yourself be an island, walking through the day ignoring the hurt and fears and pain of those around you. As a Christian, I’m grateful that our Lord gave a method to his weak and sinful followers. If you do not yet have enough of the love of God in you to feel the emotions of another, to love them with action, then do this: try at least to see me in them.

And then, then, the love will follow.

For more information on this project, you can see the Grand Haven Tribune article, David's blog post about the project, and, if you live in the Tri-Cities, you can click here for the story submission form.


  1. I was visiting a New Yorker friend many years ago and we were walking to a restaurant when we walked past a man at the curb. Jimmy reached into his pocket and handed him a folded bill. I commented that I thought giving money to a beggar was encouraging alcoholism or drugs. He just said that he carries about ten dollars, folded, in his coat pocket every day. That was about the price of a cocktail and he said he'd rather give it away than to buy that drink for himself. His Jewish faith encouraged mitzvahs, and a gift freely given could be freely used. Ever since, I've done the same thing whenever I'm in a city. My coat pockets always have a few folded dollars for that purpose.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. via St. Teresa

    Christ has no body but yours,
    No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
    Yours are the eyes with which he looks
    Compassion on this world,
    Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
    Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
    Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
    Yours are the eyes, you are his body.