More than a dozen years later, I told the story. The sermon was titled; “What Ever Happened to Ralph” and I delivered the message with passion and grace. I called the congregation to remember those less fortunate. I spoke from my own experience. I spoke from the emotion of one who had lived in pain for so many years after watching this homeless man turned away by the church. I told of a congregation and their shame in turning Ralph away. I called every one who had ears to hear. I hoped and prayed that my words and God’s love had moved them to action.
We sang a closing hymn and I made my way down the isle, my robes flowing, the candles lit bright, the colorful windows throwing a rainbow through the sanctuary. I spoke the benediction from the back of the church and awaited the flow of well-dressed people at the narthex door. As the line formed to shake the preacher’s hand, I noticed the eyes of every member looking past me to the entry door. There stood a vagrant, his hat in his hand. He was dirty and disheveled. In the midst of those who had just spent time in God’s presence, this man was a stark contrast: they were well dressed while he was hardly dressed. His clothes were tattered and thin. He had dirt on his face, hands, and clothes. He was there for only one thing: A hand out. Mothers pulled their daughters and young boys huddled together to whisper about the guest. Everyone seemed very uncomfortable; none more than me.
I excused myself from the greeting line and made my way to the drifter. I led him out the front door. His moist eyes met mine. “I just wondered if you might spare enough money for a sandwich.” He licked his chapped lips.
I whispered my response through gritted teeth, holding a smile but speaking daggers. “This really is not the right time. Why don’t you try somewhere else?”
He didn’t argue. He didn’t protest. He nodded his head and walked slowly away.
I composed myself and re-entered the narthex. I started shaking hands again, as if nothing had happened. One of the church members and her family broke into the receiving line with excitement in her voice. “Was he a plant? Was he a test? Did you bring him here to test us?” I stared blankly at this nice woman.
Her enthusiasm built. “Is that Ralph?” she exclaimed.
Only then did it dawn on me. On a Sunday when I told the story of Ralph and expected them to respond, Ralph had shown up. It had never happened before and it never happened again. But this Sunday, of all Sundays, Ralph had come into our lives.
But instead of taking him to our food pantry, I took him to the road.
Instead of leading him in love I led him on his way.
Instead of ushering him into God’s presence, I ushered him out the door.
And before I could even express my regret, several families loaded up their minivans and chased down this vagabond. They stopped him on the street and explained their desire to help. They took him to eat and stuffed him with all the hamburgers he could hold. When the meal was over, they drove him to his destination and they prayed with him before he left the van. They loved him with words and they loved him with deeds.
That afternoon, they dropped by the house and told of the mission field that started in their own church and their own town. They told of an act of kindness and their new friend, Ralph.
Writer’s note: This is a true story. Ralph really existed in my life in 1984 and again in 1997. If you keep your eyes open, you can still see him today. He stands on the corner. He walks through your neighborhoods. He lives in the home next door. He may not be shabbily dressed, but he is hungry for God’s love. He is desperate for companionship. He is in need of a friend.