I almost missed him. After finishing the second service at church, I was running late for a meeting in Ashland, a little town 15 minutes away. Speeding up the highway, I was on him before I knew it. I quickly recognized the woman walking with her thumb outstretched as the woman who had visited our church earlier in the day looking for help. She was passing through mid-Missouri on her way from Portland, Oregon, to wherever the road took her. After one night at our local shelter, she was forced to look for help elsewhere. So she came to the church.
One of our members visited with her and gave her some warm food. He came and found me and asked me what else we could do. I was getting ready to start our youth group so I told him that the shelter she stayed at was the only shelter in town. There weren’t a lot of options for her and that if she had a way to get to Columbia – a larger city 30 miles away – they had several shelters. If she needed another day, we could put her up in a hotel and try to help her to Columbia on Monday.
I went on with my teaching duties and never heard anything more about the lady.
Until I saw her by the side of Highway 63.
I passed her by at first, a war of words in my head – “I don’t pick up hitchhikers.” ”I’m going to be late.” “How can I pass her by after all I’ve been reading?” “Dang it.” “What if I’m suppose to do this?”. After driving a little ways up the road, I found a place to turn around. I passed it. Then the war again and a second place to turn around. This time I took it. I sped back, looked for a place to get back on the northbound highway, and pulled off just in front of her. I popped the trunk of my car and greeted her – offering to put her backpack in the trunk which she graciously accepted.
Right away, she started talking with passion. And she continued for the next 15 miles until our ride ended.
She told me of another truck that had stopped to offer her a ride about 10 minutes before me. And about the boy that was crouched down in the floor board of the passenger seat so she couldn’t see him. And about how this boy jumped up at her when she got to the door. She was angry and she was hurt. And I hurt for her and for the ignorance of these boys.
She then told me about her visit to the church. About how she was searching for some place to help her and she saw this big church. Surely, she thought, a big church like this will be able to help. Surely, she thought, a big church like this would use their space to provide a warm place for someone to sleep.
She met a man and he offered her a warm breakfast. She said that was nice of him because she didn’t ask him for anything. Yet, it wasn’t want she needed most. She needed to be recognized as someone worthy of being recognized. And we failed.
No one asked her name. No one asked about her story. No one stopped their agendas and made space for her. She felt like an unwelcome interruption to our day of worship and playing church. She may have received a hot meal and warm place for a few minutes but she didn’t see God among us and in us.
When I got to my exit, I pulled over and apologized for not being able to take her all the way to Columbia. She understood and appreciated the ride. I got her backpack out of the trunk, helped her put it on, and apologized for her experience with us. I expressed gratitude, however, that she knew we were not speaking for God that morning and that she wouldn’t hold it against Him.
As I watched her walk away, I watched Jesus walk away. I wanted him to stay, even if I didn’t like what he had to say. I wanted to just be with him – even if we didn’t talk. But his time was up and his point was made. Now what?