A couple of days ago I was walking around one of the neighborhoods in Newberg. It was one of those brisk, frosty, sunny mornings we’ve been blessed with lately. Generally, I come into town at least an hour before the office opens and walk the neighborhoods. I do this for the exercise, of course, but I also ask the Spirit to show me what, and who, God might be noticing in our town. There are several different routes that I walk so over the last few months I’ve covered most of the streets in town—at least those within an hour’s walk of the office.
This particular morning I was walking a neighborhood that is a little less polished than some other neighborhoods in town. I had already passed a car sitting next to the curb on jack stands, and another car a few houses down that should have been on jack stands but instead was sitting in the driveway on flat, rotting tires. The next house had several gas grills in various stages of disrepair sitting in the side yard, and the one beyond that had a rusty old lawn mower, likely abandoned where it had died, in the middle of a lawn that desperately needed mowing.
I don’t share all that to defame the neighborhood, but rather to confess, with great embarrassment, that my expectations about the people in that neighborhood were already being shaped before I ever saw the young man.
I first noticed him when I was still about two blocks away. He was wearing a black hoodie and standing in the street next to two vehicles parked alongside a well-kept corner house. One car was a relatively late model Subaru, and behind it was an older Chevy pickup that someone obviously had, or was, spending some time and money fixing up. They were unquestionably the nicest vehicles on the block.
At first, I was merely curious about why he was standing on the street side of the cars and not the sidewalk side, but as I got closer I noticed him bend over and, apparently, check out the grill of the Subaru. He then stood up straight, stuffed his hands in his pockets and casually glanced around the street. After a few seconds he stepped over near the back door of the Subaru bent over and looked underneath it. Again, he stood up, returned his hands to his pocket, and waited, taking in the street at the same time.
After another few seconds he stepped back to the front wheel of the pickup (it had nice chrome wheels complete with new tires that still had the nubs on them), crouched down on one knee with his hand on the tire, and looked at the underside of the pickup.
I know what you’re thinking: I was thinking the same thing.
Less than a block separated us now. Even though the kid had checked out the street a couple of times, it appeared he hadn’t noticed me. My mind began racing, considering what I should do. If he was casing these two cars to steal or strip them, it would be wrong to just walk by as if nothing was going on, right?
I needed (wanted) to be the hero in this story. At first, I contemplated calling the police non-emergency number (I have it in my phone for the drop-in center) and suggesting a casual drive by, but that might just delay the inevitable. I then thought about walking right up to the door of the house and warn them that some kid was checking out their cars.
I did neither of those things because my missionary impulses took over. What I really wanted to do was say something to the kid as I passed that was so pithy, so wise, so profound that it would show him the error of his ways and redirect his life. I could see him later in life as a respected and successful businessman giving a speech at a Chamber of Commerce event honoring him. I could hear him saying, “The turning point of my life came when I was in high school. I was getting ready to steal a car and this guy I had never seen before walked by and said, '__________________.' The light bulb just went on. It changed my life forever.”
I stepped up onto the curb behind the vehicles and came up the sidewalk alongside the pickup. My mind was still churning because I hadn’t quite figured out what to say. But I had determined my course of action so I breathed a quick prayer asking God to give me the right words and I moved ahead confident they would come.
The young man was still standing in the street near the front of the pickup. As I passed the cab of the truck I happened to glance down. There sitting next to the curb was a rather large, gray, Angora Rabbit.
I like to think that I at least have a firm grasp on the obvious. But what I was obviously seeing in front of me was so unexpected, and was so contrary to the story I had created in my mind, that the pithy, and wise and profound words I planned on speaking to the young man were replaced by a stupid question,
“Is that a rabbit?”
(do not worry about how or what you are to speak in your defense, or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” Matthew 12:11-12)
The kid just chuckled and said, “Yessir, just taking her out for her morning exercise.”
I could now see the same Chamber honors banquet in my mind, only now the adult version of this kid was saying, “The turning point of my life came when I was in high school. I was walking my rabbit when an old guy came by and asked me if my rabbit was a rabbit. The lightbulb just went on. I decided right then I didn’t want to be an idiot when I got to be old and gray.”
We all need stories. Every encounter and experience we have needs to be firmly housed in a story. If we don’t know the real story, it is human nature to make one up. The problem with that is, we can only make up a story from our own point of view, based on our own experience, yet we tend to judge people and react to people according to the story we’ve made up in our own minds.
In this case my story took a kid who was out walking his rabbit and turned him into a car thief.
I see this in relation to our guests at the drop-in center. We occasionally have groups that want to come in and “witness” to the homeless that we serve there. We discourage that. I understand that they do this out of compassion, I pray that our guests would meet Jesus too. But most often what those groups want to do is come in, fix our guests, and then go back to their own lives with a sense of accomplishment.
Our guests are people with stories, histories, successes, failures, traumas, joys and tragedies. To assume that we know anything about another person without hearing and acknowledging their story is at least thoughtless, and teeters dangerously toward arrogance. Most of the time when I listen to the stories of our friends at the drop-in center I come away thinking that they are handling their situation far better than I probably would if I were in their shoes.
We don’t just do this with the homeless. Lack of knowing someone’s story can color how we treat people who are LGBTQ+, or those who are going through a divorce, or those who have lost their jobs, or are Muslim, or suffer with addiction or depression.
Having a story is part of being a person; ignoring someone’s story robs them of that dignity.
I started walking in the mornings to see what God might be noticing in Newberg, but what I have learned so far is what God is noticing in me.
I can say that because of me our community is rid of one car thief, but it was a car thief that was born and raised in my own mind.