A few weeks ago, I was walking over to a pizza place with Jen on the Downtown East Side, a neighbourhood I’m familiar with. As we were walking, we were stopped by a woman asking for money. This isn’t an unusual experience, especially with this woman. I’ve been stopped by her probably four times, and every time she has the same story: “I’m not from here, and I need eighteen dollars so that I can spend three nights at a hostel.” That’s the same story I’ve heard each time she’s stopped me over the last year.
But this experience was slightly different, and it made me stop and reconsider my whole life and ministry in a way. I was wearing my cross, which has proven to be quite the conversation point since I bought it eight or nine months ago. She looked at my cross and said “I like your cross. It has Jesus on it, that means you’re a Christian, right?” Of course, I said yes. “You’re a Christian, so that means you help people and pray for them afterwards, right?” Knowing that she’s right, I say yes. But being the contrarian that I am, I told her that I could not give her money. “But you’re a Christian! That means you’re supposed to help me!” I apologized to her again, and went off to buy my pizza.
After that experience, I told Jen “Things like this make me want to hide my cross.” And her being the saint that she is said “No, Graham, things like this are the reason you wear your cross.” and she was right.
Usually when I have change, I will end up giving some money to someone when they ask. But there are a number of reasons why I don’t always give money. Cheif among them is that on the Downtown East Side, there are so many organizations that can offer real, lasting help and change, something that my toonie isn’t going to do for the person who asks. I work for an organization that can offer much more than I can as an individual.
But the reason I wear my cross is as an identifier, that I am someone who follows Jesus and can offer help, prayer, and counsel to people who want or need it. This woman’s words, “But you’re a christian, that means you’re supposed to help me!” are true, and the reason I wear this cross.
I was trying to process this experience, and talked about it with my pastor the next Sunday. He reminded me of the story in Acts 3:
Peter and John went to the Temple one afternoon to take part in the three o’clock prayer service. As they approached the Temple, a man lame from birth was being carried in. Each day he was put beside the Temple gate, the one called the Beautiful Gate, so he could beg from the people going into the Temple. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for some money.
Peter and John looked at him intently, and Peter said, “Look at us!” The lame man looked at them eagerly, expecting some money. But Peter said, “I don’t have any silver or gold for you. But I’ll give you what I have. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, get up and walk!”
Then Peter took the lame man by the right hand and helped him up. And as he did, the man’s feet and ankles were instantly healed and strengthened. He jumped up, stood on his feet, and began to walk! Then, walking, leaping, and praising God, he went into the Temple with them.
Acts 3:1-8 NLT
I remember this story really clearly as a song that my Mum taught me, and I’m glad she did, because that’s how it’s stuck:
“Peter and John went to pray
And met a lame man on the way
He asked for alms, and held out his palms
And this is what Peter did say
Silver and Gold have I none
But such as I have give I thee
In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk!
And he went walking and leaping and praising God
Walking and leaping and praising God
In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk!”
Over the next few days, as I processed this story, it began to shape my memory of the experience with this woman at Main and Hastings. She was absolutely right, that I am a Christian, and that means that I help people, and I pray for them afterwards. My cross identifies me as a member of Jesus’ family, and this family’s first job is to help and serve the needy. When I gave her nothing, I was not acting as a Christian, and I should have given her something.
But as this story from Acts tells me, I don’t have to offer cash. I could have said to her “Silver and Gold have I none, but what I do have, I give to you…” I could have prayed for her, I could have listened to her story, I could have bought her a meal, I could have directed her to the plethora of organizations that are here to help. In all these ways, I could have given her what I do have: knowledge, resources, prayer, and Jesus.
This experience has now begun to shape my own work. If I need to ask someone to move along, I make sure I have something for them to go with: A bottle of water, a pair of socks, a reminder that they can receive a hot meal soon, a conversation, a joke to be shared, or even the words of eternal life. All of these things are helpful and humanizing, and sometimes that’s all people want in the moment.
But the biggest thing I can share with them is Jesus. What I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, you are healed, you are loved, you are cared for, you are appreciated, you are fought for, you are full, you are known, you are warm, you have a place to sleep tonight, there is a way out of your situation.
I want to do better at this, and I want to be able, whenever I am asked for help, to be able to give what I have, in the name of Jesus. And maybe that will be a step in getting them back up on their feet.
This is a message I intend to turn into a sermon. Not for any specific Church or congregation, but one that I can continue to preach to myself, and bring to another church if asked. This is an experience that I believe isn’t just for me, but one that should be shared, so if any church wants to hear a message like this, just let me know, because this is a message I don’t think I should keep to myself.