A priest at my former church would tell a story from an occurrence years before that had stayed with him.
As he recalled, there was a big snowstorm going on outside as he was nestled into his easy chair to watch TV in the rectory one winter night. Finally, he could do some well-deserved relaxing after a long, hard day.
Not long thereafter, though, the doorbell rang. The priest grumbled and went to the door to see who in the world would be out in such horrible weather.
It was a homeless person asking for something to eat from the church’s food pantry. The pantry was visited often by the homeless as they migrated their way down a major road from a nearby big city.
Still complaining to himself, and not acting very hospitable, the priest, without ever asking the frigid man to step inside for a moment to get warm, trudged into the kitchen to make him a sandwich.
The priest grabbed the paltry meal and went back to the door.
The man was not there. More than that, however, there apparently had never even been a man at all – at least not a normal one – for the priest noticed that there were no tracks in the deep snow leading up to the door.
It was at that point that the priest became very disappointed in, and angry at, himself.
“I realized that I had been tested and I failed miserably,” he said, his voice dropping as the realization from that night hit him again all those years later.
Like the priest, I have never forgotten that story. And I remembered it – once more – several days ago.
I stopped at the small, family-owned grocery store in my town to pick up a few items. I wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible so as to be able to go home and watch some football on TV as I did some writing. It was hardly a visit that I thought would stand out in any way, shape or form.
But I was wrong. Man, was I wrong.
As I walked down a short hallway to leave the store, I saw a old woman standing at the trash container by the bottle recycling machines. We were the only ones there. She saw me, got a surprised and embarrassed look on her face and immediately dropped what appeared to be a muffin or role into the trash. It seemed as if she was eating it.
I would not have paid attention to any of it if she had not gotten so uncomfortable when I approached. Just before I got to the lobby leading outside, I looked back and saw her one more time. Apparently thinking that I was I out of sight and the coast was clear, she reached back into the trash and grabbed the muffin.
Whoa! She was eating it.
She did not appear to be homeless, at least judging from the fact that she was dressed well. But perhaps she was homeless, or she was having financial issues or something else was terribly wrong. Otherwise, why would she be eating out of the trash?
My first thought – and for a long time my only one – was to leave the store and get to my car as quickly as possible so as to give her some space. I did not want to catch her in the act again and humiliate her. That would not have been kind. Anyway, what was going on with her was none of my business.
I got to my car dwelling on this and drove away. But I got only about two miles away when it hit me: that woman needed help, and I was the one who was supposed to somehow help her. Her problems were indeed my business.
I considered about turning around and going back, but I was too far away, and with the traffic the way it was at that time of the day as the evening rush-hour approached, I would not return in time. She would be long gone.
Just like the priest, I had been tested and failed miserably. It was not intentional – stuff like that never is – but I had turned my back on her. I could have made a difference in her life, if only a small one. I know I could have. We are all charged with helping our fellow citizens, especially those who are hurting and not in a position to do anything much about their situations.
Now I know how the priest felt, and I can vouch that it is not good.
Next time, I hope I am smarter and more perceptive, and quicker to react responsibly and respectfully. I don’t want to flunk the exam again.