Sunday on a Park Bench: Christ Before a Watching World

I met two men coming out of church last Sunday. They were sitting on a bench, under the shade of a tree. Their worn backpacks rested on the wooden boards between them, and resting relaxed between their knees, their hands each grasped a well-worn walking stick, covered with names written in black marker. Their faces were weathered, framed by graying hair and long beards.

They had been out in the downpour that had swept through. I remembered the lights flickering, as tree branches bent and twisted in the wind outside the windows. I remembered realizing, as the rain pounded in erratic sheets, that our windows were open and had worried about the puddles of water we might find on our windowsill and floor. They were wet through, and held up their dirty flannel shirt sleeves and baggy pants to demonstrate.

“Do you go to that church?” they asked, gesturing across the street to the building I had just exited. I nodded.

The leader of the two said, “Some kids from your church talked to us last week. They gave us coffee. They signed my stick,” and with this, he pointed to one of the signatures on the thin piece of wood he held. “When they left, they told us they were going to bring us back sleeping bags and tents—but they never showed up. We even prayed together.” He said it in such a way as to suggest that praying had sealed the deal, like a handshake after a business arrangement.

“I thought Christians were supposed to be people who kept their word and stuff,” chimed in his buddy, “but I guess I was wrong. It’s okay—I’m learning now. You know, adjusting my expectations.”

My heart simultaneously ached with sorrow and flared with anger. “Adjusting my expectations”—that Christians aren’t people who carry through, who are marked by integrity, who are generous.

I apologized profusely, trying to make clear to these two men that they had been wronged. But they dismissed my words offhandedly. As if they were used to it? As if they were over it? As if they had now wised-up to what these Christian people are actually like? This hardened dismissal was nearly as painful as their story.

Some might say that their story was exaggerated or invented for my pity, as a part of their “sales pitch” for money. The cynic in me considers this possibility. It is possible that the story wasn’t true. There’s no way for me to know.

But what if it is?

What if a group of Christians made a promise to these two men, homeless and down on their luck, and either never intended to or shrugged off the carry-through?

We can put the debate aside for now regarding the best way to help these men, though this conversation is well worth having. (Should you give them a “handout” or should you help them find a job? How obligated should you feel to help them?) For what concerns me here is the misrepresentation of Christ’s Church.

When people brush shoulders with Christ-followers, they should be left adjusting their expectations in a positive light—‘what generous, kind-hearted, compassionate people these Christians are. The church-thing, the Jesus-thing must make them better people.’ But here, these men now see Christians as those of empty promises. What could have been a moment of generosity beyond what most would expect, turned into the bitter taste of being slighted or forgotten or lied to. And my words could do little to change their minds.

As I continue to mull over my conversation with them, I keep trying to figure out what the best response is as a Christian. Not just in the sense of caring for their needs—but also in the sense of righting a “wrong” of a fellow Christian.

I heard a story recently about a Mennonite man who had been dishonest in a business transaction while selling his house. In response, two men from his church approached the man who had been wronged, and offered him money from their own pockets to make up for the damages. He went to their church. They should cover over the wrong he had done, they said; it was an integral part of being a church community.

How do we cover the wrongs of others who confess to be Christians and malign the name of Christ? How do we step in to cover the damage they’ve done, to preserve the reputation of his church?

If we are a part of a body, deeply, integrally connected, not flying solo in our faith, if we are the face of Jesus to the world, what are we to do and to what lengths are we to go to uphold his name?

I don’t have definitive answers yet. But as I continue to ponder my moments with Tucker and Corrie, I am reminded of our high calling as we live out Christ before a watching world.