It may just rank as the most unusual thing I have ever witnessed. If not, it gives whatever ranks number one a serious run for its money. I observed it Memorial Weekend Sunday as I drove to church. Lynne was out of town for the holiday weekend, so I was alone in the car.
While sitting at a red light, what initially caught my attention were the unusual movements of a very petite adult, whose hunched-over identity as male or female was obscured by a hoody pulled overhead. More fascinating were the six to eight bags – some plastic grocery bags, others small tote bags – that were lined up neatly in single file along the sidewalk where the person stood. This oddity was made even odder by a roughly 10’ gap between the first bag and the rest. “Must be a homeless person,” I quickly assessed,” but what gives with those bags?”
As I continued to watch, the individual moved the second bag down the sidewalk, left it in line behind bag number 1, and then returned to move bag number 3 into position just behind bags 1 and 2. As the light turned green and I began to slowly drive by, bag number 3 was now in transport. It became obvious to me that the individual was slowly moving the bags down the sidewalk one by one – an act that would be repeated as long as necessary - to get to wherever he/she was going.
As I rode by the scene that had been unfolding in front of me, still puzzled by what I had observed, a strong impression gripped my heart – an impression I quickly knew was from the Lord based on previous experiences with Him. I needed to do a U-turn and go back to offer to help the person. Even though I knew the impression was from the Lord, immediately a quiet debate in my heart and mind began to build: “I don’t have time to stop. After all I’m on my way to church. Kevin [our Worship Leader] is counting on me to be in the choir.” And then the best argument of all, “Besides, I have to turn in the large bag of clothing donations sitting on the rear seat of my car in support of our clothing drive for the homeless. Today’s the last day to give.” To be honest, what I didn’t say, but should have, is that my main reason for not wanting to stop was that I knew that helping people can get messy. I was in the mood to worship, not to get involved in a messy situation with another human.
Then - and I don’t believe by coincidence - the “Story of the Good Samaritan” crossed my mind. Jesus had told it in response to being asked, “Who is my neighbor?” With laser like focus, my mind quickly moved to the part about the two very religious men who had passed by on the other side of the road when they had come upon a man who had been beaten, robbed, and left for dead. It crossed my mind that if Jesus were to ever update His story, I could be cast in the starring role of lead hypocrite. I knew at that moment that no excuse I could give would justify not turning around. I had to go back and offer to help. It no longer mattered if I missed church. It no longer mattered if things got messy and I ended up having to locate a homeless shelter for the individual. That person was my neighbor, and I needed to help if at all possible. The sad part of that realization is that it took a literal mile of highway and internal debate for me to respond positively to the leading of God’s Spirit. What did that say about my heart?
By the time I completed my return trip, thankfully there was no sense of “oughtness” in my spirit. I wanted to be of help. The person turned out to be a she - an older woman whom I estimate to be in her early 70’s. She was delightful to talk to, and very grateful for my offer to help. She said she was heading to a store around the next corner, and then on to her home. To my surprise she refused my numerous offers to give her a ride – even when my offers became pleadings. She assured me that she would be ok. I left her there, believing I’d done all I could to try to help. I was truly disappointed that she said no – quite a 180 from just minutes before.
Who is my neighbor?
Jesus said our neighbor is anyone in need - be it a literal neighbor, family member, work associate, friend, casual acquaintance, or complete stranger. My prayer is that the next time I meet up with one of my “neighbors” and God speaks to me about helping, it won’t require a mile of debate and a U-turn for me to act.
About the Author
Jerry Long is a retired minister [38 years] living in metro Greenville, SC. He and his wife Lynne have two daughters and three grandchildren. He holds degrees from Clemson University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.