He was ten minutes late as the verse to the second hymn was being sung by a sea of worshipers. He found his way through the groups of families in their Sunday‘s best and stood beside another insecure man, in myself. I initially smelled him as he made his way into my aisle and knew that our similarities ended there.
After the song was over our pastor asked us to extend a “good morning,” greeting to our neighbors. But before I was even able to turn to the man standing next to me, I noticed that his head was dropped as if to save other’s the trouble of having to acknowledge his existence. I deliberately waited patiently, hoping that he would look up and after a matter of seconds he hesitantly accepted my hand.
It was nothing less than an awkward moment shared by two social introverts. After we shook hands, he took off his faded, mesh red trucker hat to reveal his long combed hair and it was obvious that this was his way of making an effort for his appearance at church. Little did he know, that the church nor its members would make no such accommodations for him.
I sat uneasy at times as I watched the small children around us stare in his direction and whisper to their parents like he was a sideshow at a circus. I began to feel a strange aura around us as if he were unwelcome. I was embarrassed for him.
He was the kind of guy that people pass on the sidewalk without stopping to say hello. For one, he most likely walked with his head parallel to the pavement and two, his body odor is such that people ignore him because of his scent. In fact, he probably had gone his entire life without saying as much as a sentence to anyone in a given week. Yet on this beautiful Sunday morning, this man attracted more glances than anyone in the congregation. Amidst all of the singing, praying and hoopla that was going on, my neighbor became something that he probably never asked for; the center of attention.
I started to think about God’s message and the sole purpose of Christians like myself and the reason why we even attended places like church. And alas, just as the offerings were being passed to the man next to me who had no money to give, I saw the disconnect. For many in that church it was enough for them to listen to the preacher’s sermon, give their tithings and check off their good deed of having attended. These people were on their way to self-centered happiness with not a care in the world.
The prerequisites became clear as I scanned the room only to see the common attire of pressed aloha shirts, pagers clipped onto the belts and fancy strollers. Church all of a sudden seemed more like a members-only club than a setting for prayer. I began to wonder, “since when did Christians become a strictly middle to upper class social group?” I questioned what our mission was as a church and who we were called to serve if people like the guest who sat beside me was treated like the outsider I’m sure he felt like.
I noticed more unfriendly piercing stares from all directions and wondered if the quiet man to my left did the same. I scoffed at the idea that church had become something less about our neighbors and more about oneself.
Later in the service as people joined hands, I once again offered my hand to the man to my left. I held it there in plain site, hoping that he would reach out and grab it. Again he reluctantly gave in as if it were only the second time someone had ever offered. (To prove my theory, the lady beside him did not hold hers out). And so, we stood together, the homeless man and I. Neither of us sang but we stood shoulder to shoulder, praising our Creator, with humility, bashfulness but as equals.
I try to imagine how hard it must have been for that man to walk into a church filled with hundreds of people from a different walk of life and on opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. While I felt that in a basic sense I could relate to his reticence, I don’t quite know where he came up with the courage to walk into a place filled with people who would just assume pretend that he wasn’t there.
I sometimes don’t know how to respond to people like my neighbor in church or how to act around them. I don’t know whether to ignore them like the rest of society and let them live a life of absolute privacy and isolation or to embrace them and show them even the most basic forms of courtesy. While I keep trying to figure that one out in each encounter that I have, I know that at the very least we can show them some dignity. And so what if that doesn’t mean rolling out the red carpet or handing them a stack of money. Maybe all dignity has to be is holding a strangers hand at church…no matter what they look like, where they came from or how they smell.