“There’s no one here who can help you!”
I was startled and frightened by the man knocking on the church office door. He wanted me to unlock the parish hall so he could sleep there.
I was a new volunteer, working alone at night. I didn’t want to deal with this! But the glowing cross hanging between his face and mine made it difficult to send him away. Making it even more difficult, the cross was mine.
My small gold cross was bright against my dark dress. When you’re in a well-lit room looking out a window at night, what you mostly see is your own reflection. The man was standing below my level, so the cross beneath my throat seemed suspended in front of his face.
I tried “no one here who can help you” again, but he wasn’t easily discouraged. This was a church, with warm, safe, empty rooms, and he needed a place to sleep.
It seemed simple to him. It overwhelmed me.
I knew I couldn’t let him sleep in the parish hall. I hate to admit it, but I just wanted him to go away. But the cross was hanging in front of the man’s face, challenging me to choose between a fearful response and a faithful one.
I didn’t know what to do, but I did know who to call: a priest on the church staff. He knew about a hostel I could call to arrange a couple of nights stay at the church’s expense. That done, I met the man on the safe, busy sidewalk to give him directions and money for the bus.
Years later, I served as a priest at that same church and had many encounters with people in need. Some I could help, some I could not.
Many times I felt overwhelmed. I felt that I just couldn’t handle one more difficult situation or deal with one more person with needs I could not begin to meet. And then I’d see that cross.
I learned that the cross wasn’t there to challenge me to help every person, or to shame me when I didn’t. I learned that it was there for me as much as for the other person, there to give me courage and forgiveness.
Decades later, that cross still shines in the darkness between my fears and people’s needs. I still get afraid, frustrated and feel overwhelmed. It doesn’t give me super powers, so I can rise to every occasion or solve every problem. Not even close.
What it does give me is an enduring belief that God is here in this world right now, working to bring generosity, kindness, healing and hope, working through all kinds of people, of all faiths and no faith.
People have different beliefs about God or no beliefs. We don’t need to be united in our creeds and symbols, just in our belief that we are the “someone here who can help.”
The sign that supports me in responding to need is the cross. What’s yours?
The Rev. Janet Griffin is the congregational developer for the Southwest region of the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane, Wash.