He quietly slipped into the seat beside me just as the service began. The whole row of us shifted down a bit to accommodate him as he and I weakly smiled at each other. I held my baby son on my lap. The first thing I couldn’t help but notice was his bare feet. I suppose I should explain here that I am white as were my friends with me that day and my baby boy is black as was the recent addition to our pew. This did, I’m sure, impact what soon happened. Isn’t it just so sad that I even have to mention this…
As the first congregational song began, I gestured to him offering to share the hymn book. He had on a man’s suit which had definitely seen better days. The jacket was wired together in front over a t-shirt.
The church was downtown in a large African city. Although somewhat mixed, it was definitely primarily a white congregation. Now a bit deeper into the service, I heard a slight commotion behind us in the antechamber. I turned slightly to see a well-dressed older white gentleman heading our way. He whispered something to my new pew mate and together they both disappeared back into the vestibule.
Several minutes passed and my pew mate never returned. I began to wonder what his quick getaway was all about. The sermon had started. I looked at my friends and with a knowing look amongst us we all slipped out back too.
I noticed the same white gentleman, probably an usher, as we headed for the exit.
“Would you happen to know where the gentleman you spoke to went?” I asked. I will never forget his reply.
“Being downtown as we are here, we get all kinds of riffraff. I am so very sorry,” he said.
“Sorry for what? He did absolutely nothing to offend me if that’s what you were thinking,” I said.
I was gob-smacked on just soooo many levels, as were my companions! But here’s the most baffling and ironic thing. The sermon subject was the poor!
We quickly set out to see if we could find the young man. He had a considerable head start on us but up and down the streets we went scanning and searching until we finally spotted him. We pulled up alongside him and of course he recognized us right away. I leaned out the window to speak to him. I apologized for the treatment he’d received stating I had no complaint at all about him sitting next to me. We asked if we could take him to lunch but he declined. He explained that he had to get back to his sister’s as soon as possible where he’d been locked out the night before. He had wanted to go to church but being locked out he had no proper clothes or shoes except for the old suit he’d borrowed which he acknowledged was probably a bad choice. He assumed that his appearance was the reason he’d been asked to leave.
“Oh don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’m used to being treated this way. The poor always are.” What a stunning statement!
When you read this true story how does it make you feel? Does indignation rise up within you? When we witness injustice it’s so much easier to simply walk on by ignoring it.
When my boys were little and didn’t clean their plates, I would often remind them that there are starving children in Africa. Later, when they grew older, they would respond with the statement, “we can’t send it over to them Mom,” making my comment almost pointless. Truly that kind of poverty is just so far away and so out of my personal experience. Besides the problem is so massive what difference can I make?
Indifference has a way of setting in without us even realizing it and truth is, we often conclude there is nothing we can do about the world’s long list of problems so why give it any of our brain space. It’s so depressing. Apathy is one of those sneaky little sins we don’t even know we are carrying around. A moment of sympathy and my mind dismisses the issue. We disconnect. That’s no surprise. We become desensitized to the tragedies we hear about over and over. We become numb.
Yet there is always something we can do, big or small, near or far, no matter your age beginning with prayer.
The Bible cautions us to be aware. In Revelation 3:15-17 John addresses the church at Laodicea reminding them that they cannot be lukewarm. King Solomon says in Proverbs that apathy is the complacency of fools.
It’s impossible to be in both camps at the same time and remember that remaining in the middle is a choice in itself. Indifference is no small thing.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” John Stuart Mill in an 1867 university inaugural address.
“Let not anyone pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion…” he went on to say.
What is your heart’s response to the pain in the world? Take your own emotional temperature. In the story of the Good Samaritan both a priest and a Levite “passed by on the other side.” Luke 10: 30-37 I ask my Father to make me aware of who I am passing by…
I pray, “Lord break my heart for what breaks yours.”