I slunk into worship a few minutes late on Sunday, something that is, unfortunately, not unusual for this harried mama youth pastor. I hurriedly slid into a pew in the back of the sanctuary along with my 10-month old daughter.
A few minutes later, an usher escorted a disheveled looking man into the back pew, just two rows behind me.
I sized him up for a couple of minutes. His disheveled appearance combined with his general dirtiness and unkempt hair led me to conclude he was homeless.
A few minutes later he was joined by another similar looking man who I also concluded was homeless.
I'll admit, the mama part of me bristled. Although I had no cause to be concerned, I was.
My church's sanctuary – normally a place of safety for me – was transformed into a place of worry. I held my daughter a little tighter, fearful of the strangers sitting behind me. My senses were heightened as I became alert to the distinct possibility of danger.
As I became aware of my emotions, I grew ashamed.
I mean, I'm a youth pastor.
I know church is supposed to be a place where everyone is welcome. I know Jesus spoke often about the importance of the “least of these.” What's more, I know first-hand that Jesus often shows up in the least of these.
And yet, I didn't want these people – these homeless men – to worship with me on Sunday.
A few minutes into the service, my daughter grew restless so I rearranged her, standing her up on my lap, facing opposite me.
Moments later, I sensed more than heard her tiny giggles – not an uncommon occurrence in a congregation where she's incredibly well-known and well-loved. People often sit behind us in worship making faces at her that cause her to laugh and smile.
Yet, when I last looked behind me, there were only two homeless men.
Curious, I turned.
When I did, I came face to face with one of the homeless men making ridiculous faces at my daughter, trying (and succeeding) to get her to laugh.
Watching this interaction, I nodded at him and smiled.
Even so, when the sermon began – a time in which I normally nurse my baby girl – I momentarily hesitated. Even though I cover myself to nurse, I wondered if I should really nurse in front of two homeless men.
Baby girl's hunger was clear, though, so I did, taking more time than usual to ensure I was fully covered, again aware of a perceived threat behind me.
After my sweet girl finished nursing, we stood for the prayers and the passing of the peace – a time each week when we shake hands and share God's peace with one another.
As is often the case, I turned to pass the peace with the people behind me and once again, came face to face with the two homeless men. Few other people surrounded them, I suspect because my fellow parishioners were struggling with the same feelings I'd spent worship trying to suppress.
A bit reluctantly, I extended my hand to the man who'd spent most of his worship experience making my daughter laugh. He shook his head no, turned his hands over so I could see his palms and said, “Mam, you don't want to touch my hands. They're dirty and you have a baby.”
I wanted to burst into tears.
Here was this man who I'd spent the morning fearing, acutely aware of his disheveled state, trying to protect my daughter from any germs he might be carrying.
In that moment, I saw this man's humanity. I saw his dignity. His worth. His value. I was reminded of the fact that he – like me, like my daughter – is a child of God, worthy of respect.
So I extended my hand again and said, “That's OK.” Reluctantly, he put his hand in mine. We shook, I looked him in the eye and thanked him for entertaining my daughter, and said “We're glad you're here this morning”, meaning every word.
I'm not sure what happened to this man after worship ended.
I got engaged in a great conversation with someone and then headed upstairs to lead our high school youth ministry.
I hope he and his friend were welcomed by our congregation.
I hope he and his friend left church having had a palpable encounter with Jesus.
Thanks to their presence, I know I did.
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