“David, tell us a story!” someone’s voice called, as eighteen teenage boys settled in for bed after our second day of mission work. The request was a half-joke; we took every opportunity to treat David, our group’s most veteran member and an experienced missionary, as a fatherly figure. It would certainly help distract us from the cold tile floor beneath us, though. “All right, all right,” he relented, switching off the lights. “I think I’ll tell you guys a true one tonight.”
“Some weeks into my mission work in Bolivia, I crouched at a small restaurant’s counter and ordered my meal. As I glanced around, I noticed a scraggly man, destitute and undernourished, peering through the window. I started up from my stool to invite him in to share my meal, but somehow my feet remained rooted. Part of me urged, demanded, that I greet the man and bring him inside. Another part inexplicably resisted. I glanced again, and he was gone. Instead of disappointment, I felt relief.
“Halfway through my meal, the man returned. So did the urge to offer hospitality, and so did the immobilizing apathy. Again, I did nothing, and again, the man left. I still regret letting my opportunity slip by.”
The image of the empty window left me lying sleepless a long while.
Little did I realize that I would eventually encounter the Bolivian traveler face-to-face. The first time, he appeared as a shy Bantu child, a refugee struggling to learn a radically different culture. Later, he was a woman at an airport, collapsed from a diabetic attack. He was a close friend, battling the confusion and fear of nagging doubts in his closest-held beliefs; he was a teenage immigrant from Mexico, struggling with school, the insecurity of his parents’ jobs, and his family’s future. In each case, someone with a definite need emerged in my life. With each, I had the choice to help or to do nothing. Knowing the outcome of David’s encounter provided me with the courage to invite my own starving travelers in for a meal.
I never could have anticipated the impact these encounters would have on me. In each person I served, I recognized myself: in the refugee child’s eyes, my own persistent struggle to communicate; in the woman at the airport, a familiar collapse from fatigue after a race; in my friend, a shared thirst for deeper faith; in the teenage immigrant, my own apprehension about an uncertain future. Often, I have been the one at the window, the one to be offered a seat inside. I have an obligation to return the favor.
That faceless Bolivian traveler has changed my life. His chance encounter with an American missionary impels me to reach out to others, strengthening the ties between us all. The silhouette of that penniless man never fails to return, calling me to rise from my table, to greet the person at the window, to invite him to come inside.
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