There is a group of street boys who hang out outside my office everyday, guarding cars of patrons of the café beneath the office. Because I see them everyday on my way in and out of the office, I’ve been able to develop relationships with some of them.
N is my least favorite but the one I’ve known the longest. He is about 15 years old and has absolutely no shame in asking for things. He knows I won’t give him anything, but that never stops him from hassling me. Not only is he the most annoying, but he is also the one I trust the least. He smiles constantly, not a joyful smile but one that takes pride in bothering others. Unlike the other boys, I see him everywhere in town. He guards cars at the big South African supermarket and at the pool/restaurant club near my house. He once showed up at a colleague’s door requesting money. He followed me almost home one time when I stayed with my Mozambican family, and I always fear he will someday follow me to my current home. I think he is physically harmless, but he is annoying and creepy and manipulative and I’m never happy to see him anywhere in town.
Yesterday morning in church, during a song where we go around and shake hands, I looked to my left across the aisle and saw N’s elfish grin. The last place I expected or wanted to see him, and there he was waving at me and laughing.
I should have been happy to see him there enjoying worship. I should be praying for him and the other boys all the time. But I rarely think of it. Instead I thought, “Oh no, what is he doing here? I don’t want him to be here.” Why not? Because his very presence in church challenges my attitude toward him, forces me to think of what it means to love my neighbor and to care for orphans, forces me to consider how God views him. When he’s on the street, I can ignore all of that or even pretend that I’m doing better than others who ignore these boys altogether or treat them badly. But when he’s sitting in nearly the same pew as me at church, I need to treat him as I would anyone else sitting in that room.
Last week I preached about Jesus telling the disciples that they need to become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven. To humble themselves to the status of a child, which at that time in history, was the lowest on the totem pole, definitely pre-UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child. I challenged the congregation to think of the lowest in society here – I mentioned those with AIDS and street children. Could they humble themselves to that level? Would they welcome them into their community?
Can I humble myself to that level? Can I welcome them into my community? AIDS victims? No problem. Street kids who regularly hassle me? Ummm… It’s very difficult to admit that I think I’m better than N or any of the other street boys. It’s a little less difficult but still not very nice to admit that I don’t want him in my community. And it’s a small community. I don’t go to a church of several hundred or a thousand people where it’s easy to ignore the not-so-loveable people.
Yesterday’s sermon was on the Parable of the Great Banquet in which everyone who was invited to the banquet had an excuse not to attend. Then the host sent his servants out into the streets to invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. With N sitting across the aisle, it was hard for me not to hear the message painfully clearly.
I’d love to say my heart completely changed toward N yesterday. I’d love to say that I’m going to have a completely different relationship with him and the other street boys now. Instead, I’m left in some turmoil. My eyes and heart have definitely been opened. And I don’t like being confronted with junk in my attitude. I still don’t like N, and I wonder if that can change, but I know I need to love him. I know in the coming days and weeks I will be chewing on what community means, what welcoming means, and how to seriously take these commands that Jesus teaches throughout the Bible.