When this story was originally shared through a public email list for preachers Rev. Pamela J. Tinnin was pastor of Partridge Community Church-UCC, the only church in Partridge, KS, USA (population 250).
“Last week I spent some time in the waiting room of a social service agency in Hutchinson. Except for the large woman with bright red hair who sat behind the desk, there was only one other person there, a thin woman who looked to be in her early forties. In blue jeans worn white at the knees and a sleeveless cotton blouse, she looked tired, her eyes sunk deep in the sockets, her hair lying in damp curls. I was waiting to talk to one of the staff people about a project I’m trying to organize, a volunteer chaplaincy program for people who find themselves homeless and in dire straits.
Glancing over, I saw that the woman was looking out the window at the street, her eyes sad, her hands held still in her lap, her feet in the scuffed tennis shoes side-by-side, flat on the floor.
I picked up a year old Readers Digest and began flipping through the pages, past the ads, past the jokes, past the uplifting stories. To be honest, at that moment, I didn’t have the energy to take on anyone else’s problems and she looked like problems came in the door with her. Early that morning I’d had some bad news from California. Pretending to read, all I could think of was how little I could do for the woman sitting across from me, much less my family, almost 2,000 miles away.
Just then a whispery, rough voice said, “Are you in trouble?” I looked up, and then behind me, thinking the slender woman was talking to someone else, someone who’d come in when I wasn’t looking. But when I turned back she was still waiting for me to answer. “Me?” I asked. “In trouble?”
She ducked her head then, like she was embarrassed, but answered. “Your face…you look like something bad has happened…like you feel really lost.”
I couldn’t speak for a minute and could feel myself flush with shame, me thinking all the time she had wanted something from me. Then to my surprise, I told her what had happened, told her how hopeless I felt, told her how more than anything I kept hoping for a miracle. She moved closer and sat down in the next chair. She told me not to give up hope, that miracles do happen. “About five or six years ago I got into smokin’ dope; then it was cocaine and meth…my husband left me…then he went to court and took my kids away,” she said. “I thought my world had come to an end…I didn’t believe in anything…not my family or friends…not even God,” she said, and smiled a funny smile that only curved one side of her mouth.
I didn’t know what to say, so I just kept quiet and patted her arm.
“But you know, just when I’d almost given up, I met some folks who gave me another chance,” she said. “They gave me a place to live; helped me get a job. Pretty soon, I’m gonna get my own place…try to get my kids back, least part of the time. Don’t you worry,” she said, “things work out.”
“But you don’t understand,” I said, “I’m a pastor…I’m supposed to have answers…I’m supposed to be the one who knows how to help everyone, how to fix things.”
“The way I look at it,” the woman said, smiling this incredible smile that seemed to light up the small room, “that’s the work of all of us … we all got to help each other … who else is gonna do it?” And she tipped her head then and winked. “This is a hard old world,” she said. “We got to be there for each other. Don’t you think that’s the good Lord’s plan for things?”
Just then a woman in a suit, a clipboard in her hand, came through the door and said, “Mrs. Holcomb?”
The woman in the worn jeans stood, reached down and slung an old blue backpack onto her shoulder. She stepped past me, then turned back and hugged me hard. I could smell the shampoo she’d used and I glimpsed five tiny silver hoops in a neat row along her ear.
“Good luck,” I told her, “and thank you…thank you.”
She walked away and I sat there thinking how easy it is to look at someone and not even see who she is … not even see that she’s a unique and amazing child of God, someone who has come into our life to give us a blessing. None of us has a lock on God’s grace; none of us — pastor or president or homeless person — no one is more special than any other. In the First Letter of Peter, Chapter 2:9, it says, “…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” It doesn’t say some of you … it says you, as in all of you. That woman in the waiting room was right … each of us is called to care for each other — it’s the work of all of us. As she said, “We all got to help each other…who else is gonna do it?” It is pure arrogance to think that one person is called to be all things to all people. When we falter, someone else will reach out a hand and help us walk on down the road. Then there will be the days when our turn will come and hopefully we’ll be the ones to reach out that helping hand. Sometimes this is a hard, old world and “we got to be there for each other.”