Years ago, I spent a week in New York state helping chaperone a youth mission trip. Our task for the week was to re-roof cabins in a church camp. Near the end of the week, we took a day off and went into New York City on the subway. Each person carried a bag lunch supplied by the camp kitchen.
The youth had been waiting for this day of adventure. None of them had ever been to New York City, and I’d only been there once, many years earlier. We got off at Grand Central Station, and I began my day of counting. There were 18 youth, and my entire day was spent at the back of the group, counting to 18 as we walked down the streets of New York. In these days before cell phones, we had no way to stay in touch if someone became separated from the group (though we had established a meeting place).
Right out of the station, we were all struck by how many homeless people were living on the streets asking for handouts. No one was prepared for this. The excitement our kids had felt on the subway had turned into something different. Instead of noticing the buildings, the stores, the crowded streets, I watched as they watched the homeless. Most pedestrians were walking right on by, understandably. They walked down this street and others like it every day. People asking for handouts was commonplace for them. It’s not possible to stop and look every time.
But for a bunch of kids from Louisville, Kentucky, this street was anything but commonplace, and people asking them for money was anything but normal. They did stop and look. They spoke to the street people. Then they came to talk to me.
“Is it OK if we give our lunches away?” “What?” I said. “We want to give our lunches to these people. They say they want money for food. We have food we can give them.”
“Look,” I said. “Do you know how expensive lunch is in New York? If you give away your food you may not be able to afford both souvenirs and lunch.” I wanted them to remember why they’d come to the city, and not to be complaining to me later because they didn’t have enough money. “OK,” they said.
From the back of the group I watched as 18 young friends, one by one, gave their lunches to people they’d never met who said they were hungry. I watched as some took the food gratefully and gave a blessing. Some said nothing. Some refused. When that happened, the young person just offered her lunch to the next person asking for a handout. I watched as the looks on the faces of the youth turned from confusion and worry to smiles. They shook hands with the people who took their lunches. Sometimes they sat down next to them and talked for a few minutes. Finally we moved on. But we were a different group. The rest of the day our young people spoke to just about every person they saw sitting on the sidewalk asking for a handout. It was a slow way to move down the streets of New York.
The group had planned to go to the Hardrock Café just to see it, and they did. Some of them ordered food; some just drank a coke; some ate nothing, or just bought a t-shirt. Not a single one complained about not having enough money.
This Sunday we will read the story of the disciple Thomas (John 20:19-31), who had trouble believing Jesus could still be among them. There had been a crucifixion, after all. Yet, he came face to face with the risen Jesus who spoke words of peace and showed his wounds. “Have you believed because you have seen me?” Jesus asked. “Blessed are the ones who will never see me, but will still believe.”
We’d been working at a church camp, and if we expected to see Jesus anywhere, we expected to see him at the camp, where kids came for Christian education. But that day, 18 teenagers saw Jesus in people they met on the city sidewalks. And I saw Jesus in 18 young people I already knew.
© Melissa Bane Sevier