The knots in my stomach tightened. As the distance between us grew, I could feel the color leave my face. You hypocrite, I thought. So busy with ministry that you pretend not to notice?
Truthfully I had noticed. In fact I saw her so vividly that I crossed the street so she wouldn’t see me ignoring her. Not that it would’ve really made a difference. She didn’t know me from the thousands of others who ignore her every day, and we’d never even seen each other previous to that moment, as far as I knew.
But that wasn’t the point.
The point was that I felt guilty, and I didn’t want her judging me like I was judging her. It was shameful, especially since we’d been praying for her for weeks. Not her specifically, but for teens like her with matted, green hair, body piercings, and unshaven armpits.
It was July 1996, and I was one of 13 inner-city young people (ages 14-22) who had joined forces to open a youth center called Generation Xcel in one of the country’s oldest housing projects in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. At 21 I was the unqualified youth pastor and the oldest cofounder involved in our day-to-day activities. Like the rest of the neighborhood, we were mostly Latino, with two white girls and a black guy thrown in for good measure.
But that summer a change had come to the neighborhood. Suddenly there were lots of white kids hanging around, and not just the Range Rover teens and college students who liked to party at night and leave before the sun rose. Homeless and dirty, this wave of newcomers did strange things to their hair and wore funny clothes. They slept in parks and banded together for protection.
Spiritualizing the Solution
A couple of our youth leaders asked why none of the green-haired kids came to our youth center. Good question. I suggested that we should pray for them and maybe then they’d come. So as a group, that’s what we did.
Now I found myself walking away from one of the people our youth ministry was praying for. Even worse, I was walking away from the chance be an answer to those very prayers.
There she was, one of those girls, panhandling on a stoop across the street from the entrance to the park. And I was too busy for her. Worse, I was a phony, pretending not to notice.
I tried to justify my actions internally: I’ve got things to do, places to go. The youth center. The interns. The kids we’re already serving.
It didn’t work, so I tried excuses: Too late now. I already passed her. It wouldn’t make sense to waste more time and go backward.
Not good enough. As an aspiring attorney, I even appealed to precedent: I’ve ignored homeless people before without feeling like this. Surely she’ll survive just as the others did.
The jury was close to reaching a verdict. And then the kicker came: You Levite. You Pharisee. Where’s the Samaritan in you?
Conviction fell, so reluctantly I went back, wondering as I walked: What am I going to say? “I’m sorry for ignoring you?” How weird is that?
Weird, maybe, but appropriate. A couple of false starts later, I finally walked over. “God, help me,” I muttered under my breath.
I squatted beside her, introduced myself, and awkwardly apologized for being a hypocritical youth pastor. She looked hungry, so I invited her to breakfast. She told me she hadn’t eaten in several days because her last meal — scraps from someone else’s garbage — had made her sick. She was just starting to feel better.
We went to a diner a few doors down from where she’d been sitting. She ordered French toast, as I recall, and saved half the portion for “her” stray dog that hadn’t eaten either. I prayed over the meal and for her. She ate. We talked.
She had run away from family problems at home and hitchhiked to the city. She said she was waiting for some friends to take her to California. She claimed to have just made an appearance on an episode of The Montel Williams Show about teenage runaways.
How much of her story was true, I don’t know. But for an hour that morning, I did everything I could to make her feel important. Like she mattered. Nothing special, really; I just tried to treat her with the dignity that God our Father gave her. Like I’d want someone else to treat my sister.
I told her about the youth center a few blocks away that we’d started “by youth for youth,” and about our church, Abounding Grace. If she or her friends ever needed anything, I promised they could visit any time. She was grateful but said she didn’t think she’d stick around the city long enough to take me up on the offer.
Before we said goodbye, I prayed for her again. That was the only time we ever met, but periodically God reminds me to pray for her some more.
I often wondered why God sent me back, why God valued the delay on my walk to work. What really happened that day? Did anything change for her?
Maybe. Maybe not.
But something changed for me. That day God saved me from myself, and in the process reacquainted me with God’s kingdom. Hopefully, she experienced it, too.
… Part 2 coming Wednesday, 2/1