I was less than thrilled when a church I once attended accepted a newcomer into the baptismal tank and then into our congregation. Harvey, as I will call him, had been a shadowy attendee at our little church’s evangelistic meetings. He was a sixtysomething, gray-bearded, lumbering tower of a man who sat in the back, avoided eye contact, and responded to questions in monosyllables. We later learned that he had recently served time for several counts of child molestation. You’d better believe that as a protective church kindergarten class teacher, I watched him like a hawk.
So did my husband, yet with perhaps a more spiritual motive. In fact, Jim soon invited Harvey home (yes, to our home!) for dinner after church. I knew it was the right thing to do, but I needed Jim’s reminders that “though I don’t like what the man did either, he’s our brother in Christ now. You know: ‘For God so loved the world . . . that whoever believes in Him . . .’ [John 3:16].” Harvey devoured turnip greens, mashed potatoes, and boysenberry pie as if he’d not had a square meal in years. After a shared repast or two, the disheveled Harvey started sitting beside us in church. I asked God for a sense of compassion to balance out the revulsion I felt for this man.
One day Harvey phoned Jim to ask if he could come over “to talk.” We all sat on the back porch as he guardedly, yet fearfully, shared that he was about to lose his house. Jim prayed for the situation and for Harvey not to lose faith throughout this ordeal. Two weeks later Harvey did lose his house. Still on probation, he now had to park his little car (containing all his worldly possessions) at the flagpole of the county’s law-enforcement headquarters—24/7. We prayed for him. Jim prayed with him, especially when we’d pull up beside the weathered Ford Pinto at the flagpole to hand easy-open food containers and a few gasoline dollars through the driver’s window. As we pulled away from our mission on Easter Sunday, Harvey’s parting words were “Thanks. Love you guys.”
Various church members tried hard to find Harvey more permanent living quarters, but his particular criminal past nullified all potential options since children live pretty much everywhere. We tried hard not to think of Harvey as an inconvenience (the operative word being tried). Even when his car broke down and Jim repeatedly had to drop everything and give him a ride—to the bank, post office, grocery store, or Social Security office an hour away. On these trips Jim always took Harvey to a restaurant for a square meal. We prayed and hoped—desperately hoped—Harvey would become solvent and start meeting his own basic needs.
We tried hard not to think of Harvey as an inconvenience (the operative word being tried).
At long last Harvey’s parole officer found him a dilapidated trailer at a rundown RV park situated a legal distance from schools and day-care centers. Almost immediately after Harvey moved into the trailer, though, a doctor sent him to a hospital an hour away for a diabetes-related toe amputation. Now his after-church meals with us became less frequent. Soon Harvey was put on dialysis twice a week before ending up back in the hospital.
Jim and I dropped in on the hapless Harvey the day he was unexpectedly released from the hospital. As usual, he needed a ride . . . home, this time. I started indulging a familiar thought: Great! Another day of putting our to-do lists on hold while attending to— Suddenly Jim’s earlier reminders of “God so loved the world . . . that whoever” slammed into my mind. Jesus, give me patience. And love.
When we got Harvey back to his trailer an hour later, he didn’t have the strength to climb up the two steps into his domicile. Despite our lifting, pulling, and pushing, he eventually turned, collapsing heavily into a sitting position on the floor of the trailer doorway. At his request I clambered past him through the narrow entrance to rummage in the trailer’s dark recesses for a pair of boots that Harvey thought would help him “stand better.” I tried not to notice that anything I gingerly touched activated swarms of scurrying cockroaches. When the boots didn’t “work,” we warmed—in Harvey’s minuscule microwave—the Italian take-out meal we’d gotten for him on the road. He devoured it, sitting on the sticky kitchen floor, limp legs still protruding through the trailer’s entrance. Jim phoned two younger, stronger church friends. Yet even the four of us could not hoist the dead weight of the exhausted Harvey to an upright position. Lord, forgive my earlier complaints. This is so not about me. It’s Harvey, Lord. Meet this man’s desperate needs any way You choose. Clearly, we are helpless.
A chilly, cloud-heavy twilight draped dampness over us as we stood, semicircle, before the depleted Harvey now slumped on the floor of his trailer entrance. He finally concurred that Jim should call an ambulance. With heavy hearts we watched the paramedics secure him on a stretcher. His parting words were “Thanks. Love you guys.” Blinking back tears, we slipped wearily into our own car as overhead rainclouds released their torrents.
Though Harvey was able to return home the next day, his trailer caught fire one night shortly after. Neighbors pulled him out, but not before he sustained burns severe enough to necessitate admission to a burn unit two hours away. A thoughtful hospital chaplain kept Jim informed by phone. Jim was able to speak with Harvey from time to time and assure him church members were praying for him and would be there for him upon his return. One morning the chaplain phoned. “Harvey passed away last night. I believe he was ready to meet his Maker.”
Though stunned and saddened, we marveled at God’s care for Harvey. Our friend’s last months of life were not spent in prison, his little car, or the squalid trailer. They were spent between clean sheets in a well-kept hospital room, along with three square meals a day, 24-hour medical care, and the companionship of a compassionate chaplain. In amazement we reflected that though some situations are just beyond human help, they’re never beyond God’s. He had truly answered our prayers about meeting Harvey’s needs. But God had done more than that.
In fact, we sometimes talk about the surprisingly empty place in our hearts left by the departure of Harvey. We see now that when we were putting forth our imperfect, less-than-enthusiastic efforts to help him, God (perhaps in desperation?) was using Harvey to help us! To loosen our rigid schedules. To shake up our attitudes of self-righteousness. And (may I speak frankly?) to put aside a sense of entitlement that, because we were already hard at work on a long to-do list “for the Lord,” we somehow weren’t that responsible for helping every inconvenient “whoever” that might show up. No, despite our advanced age (another easy excuse), God wanted us personally involved in people’s messy lives, getting our hands dirty in the name of Jesus and for as long as He gives us breath. Through Harvey, God reminded us what real love—His love—is all about: that at the foot of the cross, we are all whoevers, simply saved by grace and tasked with the responsibility of loving and helping one another.
Since helping Harvey, we have a deeper, more humble appreciation for God’s grace toward us. We are also humbled when we remember that for the Friend of sinners, helping the whoevers is never, ever an inconvenience.
Carolyn Sutton writes from Phil Campbell, Alabama.