If someone is suffering on the perimeter, Jesus teaches us how to see them and bring them in. Parable after parable brings one healing, restorative action after another. The leper is made clean. The demons are cast out. The despised foreigner does the merciful thing. The woman is believed. The child is welcomed. The poor aren’t blamed for their condition. The hungry are fed.

The outside is so expansive, but knock and the door shall be opened. Ask and you shall receive. So simple.

When Charles (not his real name) knocks on our church door during the week, he sometimes wants to play the piano, often requests food and bus fare or asks to use the phone, and always leaves with the benediction “Love you.”

On Sunday, when the door is unlocked and staffed with an attendant, Charles will get coffee and treats, chat cheerily with people and perhaps interrupt the steady bubbling of table conversation with some improvisation on the baby grand in our fellowship hall. His vulnerability and dignity are evident in his daily struggles with mental health issues and bureaucratic public assistance.

Our church building is on the East Bank campus of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, steps from the Mississippi River, between a world-class hospital and a busy train station on the light-rail line connecting St. Paul and Minneapolis. Our mission is to extend hospitality and welcome to all in this strange hub of humanity, academia, transport, health care, research and sports fanaticism.

Many who visit our sanctuary just wish for a few moments of peace or are curious about the church. We get others, too—those suffering from hunger, homelessness, delusions, rejection and grief.

I straddle Sundays and weekdays at church as both a congregation member and the office manager. I usually sit in a far-back pew, and though not in charge of programming, I’m on the front line of ministry. When people come to the door, I’m the one who answers. When the phone rings, I’m the one who sees the caller ID.

Though we expect people such as Charles, we aren’t always as prepared as we want to be to respond to their requests or to sort out exactly what would be helpful in their circumstance. Jesus knew more things about the people he encountered than we do when people come to us. He knew all those intimate details about the woman at the well. He sensed when someone barely touched his hem.

We don’t have the same sight, but he asks us to do the same work and to respond in the same spirit. He did what he could. We do what we can.

We could let those instances harden us, keep us from ever opening the door. However, we risk shutting out those who truly have nowhere else to turn.

Sundays might provide the opportunity for several resourceful parishioners to rally around a visitor who’s struggling to stay above the fray. During the week, I often sort out requests on my own. I confess, I usually want to pass them along to someone else more qualified, someone with a collar or a social-work degree, and indeed I do when it’s appropriate. The pastors are the trusted stewards of our assistance fund, but I’ll fetch train passes and snacks, call a hotel or drive to a gas station. And I listen.

Is the person stopping in just this one time, or will they be back? If we’ve been able to help them at all, we know they’ll eventually return. That gives us an opportunity to bear out information over time and provoke a better understanding, a deeper response. It might also lead to the awareness that we’re being manipulated. There is always that risk.

We could let those instances harden us, keep us from ever opening the door. However, we risk shutting out those who truly have nowhere else to turn. Even those who engage in calculating efforts to meet their needs deal with challenges more complex than we could ever imagine.

It’s exhausting sometimes—this gatekeeping. I want to get back to my work. Mary and Martha spar within me: Do I finish the bulletin announcements, or do I lend my undivided attention to a soul who has been abandoned? If I’m not careful, a story can stretch into precious productivity time, and I discover I’ve neither assisted the person nor completed a task.

We feel daunted by the harsh realities of those who show up at our door, the Holy Spirit nudging us to reopen our hearts, reconsider our mission, recall our purpose. Perhaps we are able to draw strength from the remarkable ways people fashion forward-moving lives despite considerable barriers. When I’m feeling down about the unrealistic expectation for churches to fill each chasm created by government and society, a rambling monologue might crack open my cynicism, and the grace that seeps in will catch me off-guard.

We can do relationship. We can listen. Even if we are diligent in our advocacy for justice on a larger scale—and we absolutely need to be—those who are wedged into the bottom layer of Maslow’s hierarchy pyramid can’t wait for systems to change. They need us now.

Charles tends to knock a few minutes before my office hours are over for the day. I try not to let my annoyance show, because as we’ve gotten to know him and his hardships, we’ve been blessed by his wide smiles and words of encouragement. Perhaps we’ve contributed in some small way to his relative stability, but more likely we’ve just been a safe space in the right place for him, opening the door.

Jill Abenth
Jill Abenth is the office manager at Grace University Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, just up the river from where she lives with her family in St. Paul, Minn.

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