Today the sermon (which was by my husband, as the pastor was out of town) was about the good Samaritan and was titled the “Good Muslim.” More on that another time. I got to practice the lesson of the Good Samaritan right away during the social hour at church. However, I didn’t quite pass the test.
I had sat down in what I feel like is a prime position in the social hall: back against the wall, eyes on both entrances so I could see all my friends coming and going, plain view of the cookie table, and all right next to the man who sells free-trade organic chocolate. I ate my grapes and cookie and checked out my phone. I had tweeted a response to a New York Times tweet and wanted to check if there were any responses. New York Times commentator Chris had said, “I don’t know why people think it is somehow okay to ignore commands from a police officer. It’s very simple, do what they say and figure out the rest later.” I’d replied: “Unless you do what they say and get shot and killed anyway.” I don’t have a very big following so it’d gotten no attention.
In the meantime, an elderly lady sat down right next to me. She asked me my name, if I’d ever been here before, where I was from, that kind of polite conversation strangers usually engage in. I put away my phone and chatted with her. Her breath was terrible, and I patiently waited for a gap in the conversation and watched her eat a grape. She asked me if I was the preacher’s daughter. No, I’m his wife. At that point, one of the ushers gestured to me, and I left her side to see what he wanted. He said that early this morning before the first church service, he had seen her when he’d gotten breakfast at Jack n’ the Box. She’d just been standing there. She said that she was going to catch a bus to Redding, which is about two hours away from here. He took her to the bus station but then he was told that there were no buses to Redding. She insisted on staying there, but then she found her way to our church. She pointed out that I didn’t eat much. I noticed her plate was heaped high. I offered to help when she tried to stand up with food still on her plate, and she got a little snippy with me. “I can do it,” she insisted. I noticed that she could indeed do it.
The usher said that she must have come to church after telling her where he was going. I asked her, “Did you come here with anyone?”
She said no.
I tried to steer the conversation to her, to her obvious need but then she asked me again, “Are you the preacher’s daughter?”
“No,” I responded. “Remember, I told you I’m his wife?”
I sat down by her side. “That gentleman over there,” I said, pointing out the usher, “told me that you were trying to go to Redding this morning?”
“Who?” she demanded.
“In the yellow shirt, right there? He said he gave you a ride to a bus stop.”
“Is he your boyfriend?”
“Do you have a place to live?” I outright asked her.
“I don’t know you. I don’t have to tell you anything. I’ve been persecuted a lot. I’m alive, aren’t I?”
I said, “I’m not asking where. Just if you have a place to stay.”
Every time I expressed concern, she stifled it and changed the subject. She was getting agitated.
Here and there during our conversation, my friends interrupted and complimented me on my husband’s sermon, I got up to speak to a music teacher with young children seated around her, and I caved and bought a free-trade dark chocolate bar with orange flavoring.
But she seemed obviously hungry. Her teeth seemed to be falling apart. But she was wearing a sun dress and a church hat. I told the ladies cleaning up after snack hour the story and that she was still there, eating.
I tried to engage her again, and then she spilled her food and drink, and the usher and I helped clean up. She made it clear I was to leave her alone. I didn’t know what else to do. Almost everyone else was gone and she didn’t want anything to do with me. “I’m not trying to take your husband!” she said. “I know that,” was the only thing I could say, but I felt so helpless.
We had just had this story again that I love so well. The Good Samaritan stops. Helps. Bandages wounds. Sees to it that the downtrodden are taken care of and housed, and all with his own money. I had to do something, but what? Call the police? The Jesus Center didn’t open up for meals until dinner time. I interrupted the trustee meeting and told them about her, that she was still inside. She was healthy of at least body because she’d made it across town from the bus station to our church. She had a purse and a bag. Maybe she was indeed getting on the bus to Redding later. There’s another bus at 9:20 tonight. She’d told me about living there in Redding when Kennedy was president and how there was a plaque somewhere he had spoken at. But when I asked more, her life was clearly not my business, she’d insisted.
And then, against my better judgment, I left her there and went to lunch. My husband, part of the trustees, said that one of our friends was talking with her outside when he left. She has her own agency but if someone doesn’t want to be helped, even if they need it, what’s the right thing to do? What if they don’t know they need it?
I’ll be on the lookout for her, and I am thankful it’s not cold out.