Dutifully seated late one Sunday night in January about 35 years ago in one of the offices at the seminary I attended in Columbus, I stared out a window mindlessly surveying the frigid weather beyond the glass. Having been remanded by the school’s powers that be, I was taking my turn to be on call for any phone call from a major donor directed at a capital campaign known then as the “Seminary Appeal.”
To be sure, I was grateful to be inside rather than outside, but I would have rather been across the street snuggling with my wife in our quaint one-bedroom, seminary-owned second-story apartment. No calls were forthcoming from any prospective deep pockets on my watch, and with the clock approaching midnight, I fought off the urge to duck out early. As the wall clock plodded along, I couldn’t wait to punch it, literally and figuratively!
These “hallowed halls,” east of Columbus on Main Street, were nestled in the upscale residential area known as Bexley, which, in case you’re unaware, prestigiously serves as the locale for the Ohio governor’s mansion.
It was quite faint, yet even in my malaise I heard an unassuming knock on one of the massive wooden doors providing entrance to the building. Taking leave of my post, I made my way to welcome the late-night visitor. As I unlocked the door and peered out, I was a bit stunned by who was on the other side. It wasn’t a classmate, faculty member, a resident of the seminary community or even the custodian.
Standing there was a disheveled man with matted hair. He possessed a mangled beard, frozen and covered with snow, ice and who knows what else. Not at all dressed for the wintery conditions, he stood there in a tattered jacket, no gloves, no hat and donning a worn-out pair of shoes. Clutched in his hand was a dilapidated spiral notebook that appeared as if it had been through a war.
To state the obvious, he was cold, hungry, tired, desperate and quite certainly homeless. As a fourth-year seminarian, well acquainted with multiple biblical mandates pertaining to matters such as this, I sprang into action which meant, to no surprise, I called my wife. What may sound as a moment of a clear lack of lucidity, I did the unthinkable and suggested to her we take him in for the night! Of sound mind, or so I thought, she agreed.
Across the street from the seminary and next to the housing complex was a 24-hour “W.C. Steakhouse,” better known as the White Castle. After purchasing for him a late night snack of the best available fast food, I opened up the door to our apartment and introduced the man to my wife. There was no playbook for the evening short of giving him a pillow, blanket and directions to his bunk for the night, the seaweed-colored hand-me-down couch in our little living room.
For the first time in our three-and-a half years of marriage, I uneasily tried to slept while wearing my street clothes. Rest assured, the bedroom door was securely locked. The night was uneventful, save lying awake for most of it. Come morning, we fixed him a sack lunch, gave him 10 bucks, put a green Gideon pocket New Testament in his hand, handed over to him my cherished vintage military trench coat and sent him on his merry way.
It was an exercise in futility trying to restrain pride and self-satisfaction. Jesus once said, “When you do it to one of the least of these, you do it to me.” Check!
Responding to the inquiry, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus spoke the historic parable of the Good Samaritan. That would be us. Check!
With 5,000 hungry people seated at his feet, Jesus gave instruction to his disciples saying, “You give them something to eat!” We did. Check!
Of course, who can forget the sacred mandate, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself?” We are all about that. Check!
Three days later, in the early evening, the same man showed up at our apartment door. We did the only thing we could do. We again gave him another night on that musty green couch and sent him off the next morning, this time with just a sack lunch and a couple dollars.
I was roaming the halls of the seminary the very next afternoon, and a classmate alerted me of a man asking for me. When we met, I asked our revisiting friend, “Why are you here?” His response was simply, “They closed the mission, and I got no place to stay.”
Sadly, I knew this wasn’t the case and promptly ushered him to my car, drove him to the mission, handed him two dollars, the price of night’s rest, and sternly cautioned him, “You can’t come back to the seminary looking for me.” He never did.
These days I appreciate more a very different perspective on the parable of the Good Samaritan. Not the purview from a lofty position of compassionate generosity shining down from above, but rather as one who knows well the ditch of helplessness and how I’m very much in need of a merciful hand of a rescue.
Ken Pollitz moved to Ottawa in 1991 as mission-developer/pastor of New Creation Lutheran Church. His biweekly column provides insights and viewpoints from Putnam County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org