Last week I helped lead a youth mission trip to an impoverished community in eastern, NC. We spent the week working on several home repair projects in and around Plymouth, NC. Our home base was at historic Plymouth UMC, where we slept on the floor on cots and air mattresses. We got a lot of work done, helped quite a few people, and had a wonderful time of fellowship, Bible study, and fun, even in the sweltering heat and smothering humidity. In addition to the folks whose homes we were repairing, we also got to meet many people from the neighborhood where we stayed in downtown Plymouth.
Everyone we encountered on the streets was welcoming and friendly. A couple of evenings, I and another adult leader took the kids to play basketball on an outdoor court a couple of blocks from the church. There were about 15 guys from the community playing full-court when we arrived. They gladly shared the court with us. They played half-court while our kids played on the other side. I thanked the guys on the other side for sharing the court with us. I used to play a lot of outdoor pick-up games myself in different places, including Winston-Salem, NC and Greenville, NC. I know what a sacrifice they were making by playing 5-on-5 half-court. When I thanked them they were all very gracious; one in particular, specifically said, “No problem, man. We’re all family.” He and another guy extended their hands to me and introduced themselves and I did as well. Again, everyone we encountered on the streets and in the neighborhood was very friendly. Well … almost everyone.
The next morning, after that first evening on the basketball court, I and a few of the other adults were outside getting the vehicles loaded up with the tools and refreshments we would need to work on our assigned projects and make it through the heat of the day without threat of heat exhaustion and dehydration. A young man, probably in his 20’s, was walking in our direction on the sidewalk on the other side of the road. I glanced over and noticed he was making a beeline toward us as he crossed the street and he didn’t look happy at all.
As he got a little closer I and the man standing next to me said, “Good morning!” For that we were barraged with a hostile array of insults and cuss words. “What the &^$# are you talking to me for? You don’t know me! F#$^ you! Mother-^$%&%s.
To that I said calmly, “What’s wrong with saying good morning?” To that he replied, “Didn’t your momma ever tell you not to talk strangers, mother-^%$%er?!” After which he challenged me to a fight. I politely declined and wished him a good day and didn’t say anything else. He kept walking and then challenged another of our adult leaders who was crossing the road to get some tools from storage. He just threw his hands up and walked away. Finally the guy departed and made his way on down the road.
It was quite disconcerting and disappointing, but that one guy was in no way representative of that neighborhood. He definitely had a chip on his shoulder and was obviously looking to make some kind of trouble. Why? I don’t really know. He showed no signs of mental illness, just a deep-seated anger. But was he right to say I didn’t really know him?
It’s true. I don’t know his name. Nor do I know what he had for breakfast that morning, or if he had had breakfast at all. As my fellow laborer, a lay leader from another church said, he looked robustly healthy and very well kempt. I certainly don’t know what his favorite food is or his favorite song or movie. I also don’t know who his parents are, or his grandparents, or where he went or goes to school. Neither do I know what has happened to him in his life, how he may have been treated as a child by other adults, teachers, authority figures, or his peers. There really is very little I do know about him specifically. But why is it that he still seems to remind me of someone I really do know?
In that very angry and hostile young man, I was reminded of quite a few young men I knew who seemed to have a chip on their shoulders. I was reminded of the guys I knew who were angry and frustrated for a variety of reasons: past slights or ridicule, troubles at home, difficulties at school or with girlfriends, or because of injustices in society such as racism. I was reminded of guys who used to go looking for trouble, who used to pick fights with strangers just for “fun.”
I was reminded of our beach trip after high school graduation when a friend of mine, the friend I rode with to the beach in his little red Suzuki Samurai, getting into a fight with a stranger in the parking lot just after we arrived. He hit the fella so hard he had to be flown back home to New Jersey with a broken jaw and concussion. I was reminded of another friend, who while walking by a room with about five guys in it, complete strangers, started calling them names and before I knew it was flailing away at them in their hotel room.
Yeah, that one guy we encountered on the streets of Plymouth, although he was a stranger to me, as I was to him, still seemed to remind me of someone I know. In fact he even reminded me of me.
I remember having a bit of a chip on my shoulder as well, feeling like I had something to prove that could only be proven with bravado and clinched fists. I remember having a heart full of rage and how alcohol was sometimes the lever that opened the floodgates.
That guy really was a stranger, but he was a stranger that I somehow seemed to know.
The truth is because of our shared humanity, we really do know each other. I said, “Good morning!” in a friendly way because I believe that young man is created in the image of God just like I am. We are more connected than either of us could ever imagine I suspect, and we have a shared set of experiences simply by virtue of our humanity. He is a fellow human being, created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), and for that and that alone, I know him enough to know that he deserves respect and to be treated as someone important. That was part of the impetus that had us there to help strangers in need in the first place.
I also know that, like me, that fella is a sinner, in desperate need of God’s grace. Because of that I can identify with and relate to his inner hostility. Indeed the mind of the flesh is characterized by hostility to God, which often translates to hostility to those created in the image of God, whether they be strangers or one from the same womb (Romans 8:7; Gen 4). I can also relate to the fact that he is not only a sinner like me, but one who has been sinned against. And like me and the rest of humanity, he is tempted to respond with personal vengeance, even against those he doesn’t know, rather than forgiveness.
In short, although I didn’t know that fellow from Adam, I did recognize him as one in Adam.
While as individuals we are all modern creatures, as Professor Jordan Peterson says, we are also simultaneously very, very ancient creatures as well. Even from a biological view point we all inherit traits and characteristics – some good, some bad, some neutral – from our ancestors, some very recent others anciently remote. We inherit culture and traditions too, some good, some not so much.
In Romans 5:12-14, the Apostle Paul reminds us that in Adam we all inherit sin and its ultimate consequence, death. In Adam we have not only a shared humanity in the image of God, but also a shared depravity in which the image of God in us is marred and distorted beyond our own ability to heal it. Romans 5:15-21, however, also reminds us that in Christ all can be healed by the grace of God to be justified and restored to a new life of peace with God and neighbor in him.
I really didn’t know that guy from Adam, but I did recognize him in Adam. And in Christ I also recognize him as one for whom Christ died and one, no matter how hostile, for whom I should pray and love.
Matthew 6:43-48 ESV “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Our brief encounter there on the streets didn’t go too well. It could have been worse. I really don’t think there is anything we could have done in the moment to have won the favor of that particular young man. It didn’t take long to realize that conversation was going to be futile. Nevertheless, as word about the incident got around, I paused later that morning with the group I was helping lead in a roofing project to teach them about the importance of praying for those who may be hostile toward us and blessing those who might curse us. I asked rhetorically how Jesus told us to respond, then I shared his teaching as cited above. I led our group to pray through indignation for compassion, and that God would somehow bless that young man, touch his heart and transform his soul that he might experience the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, and be able to share that peace with others.
Sometimes it is said of people that they have never meet a stranger. Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know; sometimes we don’t know what we really do know. I think there are a lot more strangers that we really do know than we realize.