On one of my completely unpredictable and random days in Athens I set up a meeting to get to know a woman from the UK who started her own nonprofit for refugees. I was randomly connected to this woman by a friend on Facebook so in order to meet her my teammate and I scheduled a time and place where she could tell us a little about what she does and introduce us to some refugee families in need. Here we will refer to the early 30’s, refugee-activist, as Sarah.
So Sarah my teammate and I set it all up via Instant Messenger and on one Friday morning we all set out to meet.
We arrived at the Metro stop we agreed on around 11am anxious to see who this woman was. We stood waiting as 10 minutes passed… then 15…. then 20…. and the British humanitarian was nowhere to be found. Now before you timely Americans dismiss her tardiness as rude know that absolutely nothing in Greece ran on time. The dinners were late, the metros were later, and when someone says they’ll be there at 7:30, don’t even leave your house until 9:00. So with our adaptation to the time there, my friend/ teammate and I didn’t really deem this as unusual. We just waited and looked around and hoped she’d show up eventually. But as 20 minutes drifted into 30 and then 30 turned into 35 we decided maybe we should walk around and look for the woman we had never actually met. Hoping her Facebook profile picture didn’t inaccurately display her we mulled around eyes peeled, hoping our location was correct. After a few minutes of searching, we finally found her! With her back towards us and her front towards a man at a corner store counter, she was buying a water bottle for someone outside.
“Sarah?” I offered, praying I wasn’t approaching a complete stranger with someone else’s name.
She turned smiling and nodded, introducing herself but quickly stopping me in my attempt at any conversation. The young green-eyed woman turned quickly to walk outside where I immediately noticed a heap of a human strewn across the asphalt. As my teammate and I followed her in confusion Sarah began to explain that she had just witnessed the heap, being in fact a middle aged starving woman, begging some bystanders and upon no reaction she had fallen to the ground. The people walked away from the unsanitary, desperate woman while Sarah made a b-line to see if she was alright. To which she realized she needed water and major assistance circling the story back to where the three, or really four, of us finally made our acquaintance. As Sarah had been telling us her explanatory story from the corner of my eye I began to notice the mound move. Suddenly, almost as quickly as she fell the woman rose, arms sprawled out in desperation, slowly stepping towards each of us, reaching, grasping, heavily breathing and unable to look all the way up.
Now for a little bit of context, allow me to describe the heap of humanity that was this homeless woman.
Her entire body was leather, obviously affected by hours in the sun without shelter or shade, her dark colored skin pulled tight against her sickly bones. Her back slumped over, and her dark, deeply dirty hair covered her head in disarray. The woman was desperation with raggedy old clothes on. She was starving, dehydrated, burnt out and almost lifeless. I never learned her name, but if I had to give her one I imagine it would be Need.
Sarah tried to calm Need down. Her words were inaudible and her anguish undeniable, she grabbed my arm, pointing to her stomach and spitting out gibberish that loosely resembled the word “hungry” as she toddled around making strange desperate sounds no real words came out. I braced her and myself for the fact that she soon might fall again. She continued to mutter pointing at her stomach and pointing at me then more gibberish then “hungry” then “thirsty”.
She looked up at me with deep dark pools for eyes, she reached for my chest then pointed back at hers. With motions in the general vicinity of both of our hearts, she mouthed the words “thank you”.
Sarah and my teammate found a way to sit her down as I ran to get her something to eat.
Now I’m from Lubbock, Texas, America. My childhood might’ve been charmed but I can not say that I haven’t had interactions with the homeless. I’ve seen the newspaper sellers on the side of the street every Sunday and I’ve worked in a soup kitchens and shelters and I have experienced what it is like to be around the needy as an American. And forgive me, correct me if I’m wrong, but caring for the homeless in America is almost always done at a distance. A few dollars outside a car window, a bowl of food across a table, some clothes from inside a door… The gap between Helped and Helper is always pretty obvious, and to be completely honest I always kind of liked it that way. Because I can promise you Physical Touch is far down on my list of Love Languages and I am quite happy to serve people while maintaining some personal space. However, what I saw when I returned from getting that desperate woman something to eat dismantled all I have ever deemed as service to another human being.
The scene I returned to was this: Sarah: clean, well dressed, successful. Creator of her own nonprofit. Busy with prior engagements of her day, she had worked herself down to the cement where she sat holding filthy, exhausted, without home and long without pay, desperate Need in her arms. She sat there, on the ground, with Need’s head in her lap and both hands clasped by interlacing of fingers Sarah and human desperation met in a loving embrace. Sarah did not stop at the question “Are you alright?” and “Here’s a water bottle” Sarah sat down on a piece of concrete in a filthy spot in Greece and ran her fingers through deeply, dirty, matted hair while gently whispering,
“It’s okay. It’s okay.”
Something deep and electric ran through me at the sight. It was as if I had just witnessed something I’d been mentally picturing for a very long time.
Jesus with skin on.
That dirty, dark, exhausted woman did not want money. She did not want pity or attention or really even food. She was spent. She was desperate. She was all encompassing Need. I don’t know how she got to that spot in the city that day, what was done to her or what she did to herself, but in that moment it did not matter. I gently placed the bread and water beside her but she didn’t notice. She was fast asleep in young Sarah’s generous arms. Her hunger was for safety, her thirst for human affection. And though everything else proved otherwise, Sarah showed her without speaking that she was worth someone’s time.
And that is Jesus.
Father to the Fatherless, Defender of the Weak. Christianity is the call to become Jesus with skin on. To be His hands and His feet to see that person who just fell. Perhaps the biggest challenge in truly being like him is taking the time to look.
Now there’s a catch here, like every good story has, because amidst the half a dozen stories I have from Greece this summer there is apart of this one that just can not remain untold.
Now here’s the thing, Sarah, successful, human-rights-activist, mover and shaker of our modern world Sarah, does not call herself a follower of Christ. She is not a Christian and does not claim to be, partially because of the distance she has seen in Christians approaching those in need. When I asked her about her faith she made it clear that she makes no claim to be a believer in anything remotely religious. She is merely living life doing what she deems necessary in a crisis of global devastation.
And isn’t that ironic? Because as young Sarah sat cradling human desperation and all of it’s heartache and devestation without even trying she proved that parts of all of us were created from Divine. No matter what religion, or lack there of, you find yourself associated with Sarah proved that deeply ingrained within each of us is the goodness and love of Jesus Christ. So though some may have seen this scene and thought “Wow, faith in humanity restored” my brain went somewhere different.
Because what Sarah did was not human. What Sarah did was utterly Divine.
You see, humans by themselves are selfish and picky with their love and affection. They clock in their time at a homeless shelter and quickly wash their hands. They see someone in need and think “Sorry I just don’t have time”. Only Divine gives love so freely. Only Divine sees Need and not only gives her something to eat and drink but cradles her in His arms.
As we all know, actions scream in comparison to words. And through Sarah’s actions she unintentionally and subliminally showed Need the love of Jesus Christ. She proved completely that in each of us there are parts of Him. Whether she realized it, wanted to, or meant to, Sarah was an incredible witness to the Kingdom that day. And the fact that all humans were made in the image of God. Because in reality, Sarah’s actions reflected Him, not herself.
Eventually Sarah had to detangle herself from Need and leave her to navigate life back on her own. But as I walked away from the lightly breathing mound of human desperation I couldn’t help but feel disturbingly convicted about what I had witnessed.
Never again will I avoid eye contact with the person of whom I am serving.
Never again will I dust off my hands after shaking that of another.
I don’t think the words “distance” and the phrase “I don’t have time” existed to Jesus. So they will cease to exist to me.
How much more should we as believers be holding the Needs of the world in our arms? As long as we remain distant and inferior we will continue to let others do what we were called and created to do. God can and will use anything He wants to further His Kingdom, but I’m willing to bet He’s ready and waiting to use you.