(Scripture: Luke 17:11-19; 2 Timothy 2:8-15)
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of any of the people, places, or events to anyone real is purely coincidental.
Janiva Jeffreys slipped through the doors of the church and found a seat near the back. It was a small church, with the yard poorly kept and the building itself in some disrepair. It fit well in the neighborhood, run down, deteriorating, a three dimensional display of how little people cared.
I could live in a place like this, she thought. I used to live in a place like this.
She didn’t recognize the man at the podium. He radiated authority and certainty. But the man behind him, sitting to his right, him she recognized. It was his picture, included with a newspaper story, that had brought her here. He would be thirty years older than she remembered, and he showed every year of it, but he was definitely the same man. It was a moment in her life that she would never forget. She had moved on from that moment and become a different woman. At that moment she had been a whore—she used the word in her own mind—pursued by her pimp from one direction and by the police from another. She had had no hope, no future. But for thirty years she had not seen him or heard of him.
I never really thanked him, she thought. I never knew his name, nor he mine. I just pointed to where I wanted to get out and then I ran and hid.
The man at the podium was speaking. “As the Bishop responsible for this area,” he said, “it is my responsibility to take action on this church. With only five members left, and less than a tenth of the budget necessary, we have no choice. This final meeting is just to explain what is going to happen and when.”
“The only thing that would save this congregation now would be around $50,000 that we do not have, and also some idea that the church can accomplish something in this community. We have explored every avenue that we know, we have exhausted all options. We don’t want to close the church, but there is no other option.”
Janiva looked around the room. There were easily 200 people there. Five members? What was he talking about? Or maybe most of the people in this room didn’t count to the Bishop. She could see now the small group of elderly folks at the front of the church. Four of them were white. One was African-American. All, she would guess, were more than 70 years old. The rest of the room showed a mixture of races and ages representative of the community. What were they doing here?
She returned her attention to the Bishop. “Rev. Albert Williamson will now say a few words to the congregation.” So that was his name!
“I want to thank my friend the Bishop for his efforts to keep this church open. I want to express my deepest apologies to all of you, to ask your forgiveness for my failure to truly serve this community. I believe that if I had been able to serve this community properly, support would have been forthcoming.
“But somehow nothing has ever worked. We have done what we could as a congregation, we have given what we had. We hung on when everyone said we should give up. Perhaps they were right. When you are past your time to serve, when you can’t connect, then it’s time to move on and let those people work to understand.
“I know it’s selfish of me, and I probably shouldn’t admit it. But I just wish I could see some result for 37 years of ministry. I have served 21 different parishes, and never served one for more than two years. I never left a church larger than it was when I started. I will retire when this church is closed, and it seems like an appropriate epitaph on my calling. Perhaps I wasn’t called at all. I know I’m whining and complaining, but I can’t help it. It seems such a shame.
“I want you to know,” he said, looking at the front row, “that I am eternally sorry I was unable to lead you as you should be led.”
He sat down to complete silence. Janiva could see that the Bishop was horribly embarrassed. One didn’t say this type of thing in public. One let insincere people talk about great accomplishments and then went quietly into retirement. That was how it worked. One didn’t get up and complain about failure.
It took her that long to wonder just how this man could consider himself a failure! He had touched her life that one day. He had let her into his car in a neighborhood in which he didn’t belong. He could have yielded to fear and simply stepped on the gas. But he, a young white man, stopped his car and gave a ride to a young black woman. What was more, he had spoken to her with kindness. As they were driving he had said, “God loves you and cares about you. I can’t do much, but Jesus can. He died for you, and he wants to save you. People may fail you, but no matter what, Jesus is faithful.”
She’d left that car and run all the way home. In her mother’s church she had found direction again. Now she led a team of software developers and made a six figure salary. She had investments worth several million dollars. But she was also a tither, and one of the main supports of her own home church. And here the man who had spoken the words and done the deed that changed her life was calling himself a failure.
She was about to surge to her feet when she saw that several others had risen and there were several people trying to speak at once. They finally sorted it out, and one woman started to speak. The Bishop returned to the podium, apparently intending to moderate..
“We may not matter to you, Bishop, but the Reverend here, he’s special. We love him.”
She sat down, and another rose. There were those who were thankful for a smile, for a gift, a meal, a ride, or a kind word. It didn’t stop for a long time.
“But why then?” asked the Bishop. “Why are none of you here? Why is there no support?”
The first woman spoke up again. “We don’t have enough money between us all to make this church run. But I never thought that these folks wanted us here in church! They sing their hymns, and they get along just fine. What do they need with someone like me? I can’t put anything in the offering plate!”
Someone else spoke up. “After I got my life straightened out, I went to another church. I didn’t think I would fit in here. I did come back to say thank you.”
One of the folks in the front row was getting up. Silence fell on the room. It seemed to take an eternity for him to get to his feet, and turn to face the the young lady who had spoken of offering plates. When he spoke, it was hard to follow what he said.
“You don’t need to put anything in the offering plate,” he said. “And I do remember you. I don’t know what you’d like to do in church, what songs, or how one should preach. But all you’d have to do is tell me! I stayed here because I love this neighborhood. It’s been my neighborhood all my life. I wish we could stay open just to help, even only a little.”
There was applause as he struggled to sit down. Now’s the time, thought Janiva. She stood up.
“None of you know me,” she said. “I’m not even from this neighborhood. My home was in another neighborhood near one of those 21 churches that the reverend served. Thirty years ago I was a prostitute. I had stolen from my pimp. I had tangled with the cops. I flagged him down for a ride, and believe it or not, he stopped.” Heads nodded around the church. That was the Rev, all right!
“But it wasn’t so much the ride as the witness he gave to God’s faithful love. He’s wondering about that love now, but I think God can handle that considering how little thanks he has had over the course of 37 years.”
“Jesus tells the story of the 10 lepers who are cleansed, but only one comes back to say thanks. Well, Reverend, I didn’t even know your name. I don’t think I said thank you as I jumped out of your car and disappeared into the night. I’ve been one of the nine lepers.”
She started to walk up the aisle. “It’s time now for me to thank you. I realize now just how important it is to thank the people involved, and not just to thank God.” The reverend stood up to meet her, and they hugged in front of the church.
“I have been praying,” he told the church, that God would give me just one indication that my life’s work had made a difference. Now look what he’s done!”
Janiva turned to the Bishop. “Now Bishop,” she said, “let’s talk about keeping this church open. I want it, I think God wants it, and I can gather the resources.”