Let’s call her Jessie.
She was sitting in someone else’s seat. But then, anywhere she sat would have been someone else’s seat. She just wasn’t welcome.
Back when “Sunday best” meant special clothes, church people often competed – none-too-subtly - to keep up with the latest. But fashion trends would never arise from Jessie’s ensemble. It was more of a “non-semble.”
Anyone who bothered to care about her would recognise the effort she had made. But her worn-out dress; selected from a minimal wardrobe; made her an easy target for cheap shots. And her aura of cheap perfume only fuelled the disdain.
Heads turned as she slipped into the foyer. Backs also turned. Away; as clusters formed; and quiet gasps and hisses morphed into a torrent of tut-tutting.
“What’s she doing in here?”
“We don’t need her type!”
“She should be at our downtown mission. That’s where all the addicts are!”
“Yes, and all the other hopeless types we’re supposed to help. That mission costs us heaps of money, and they’re always pushing us to support what they’re doing!”
“But isn’t it wonderful that we had the vision to get that facility going?”
“I’m not so sure that it was such a good idea. We don’t want her kind getting any big ideas about making themselves at home in here!”
As was intended, she heard all these barbs. They sat readily with many others that had long ago insinuated their control over her self-esteem’s DNA. She could have replied in paint-blistering terms; but why bother?
She had never attracted anyone’s interest, except from those who now no longer bothered to disguise the abuse they really had in mind; and her radar could easily detect what we may politely describe as “bovine residue.” She recognised the contempt for what it was, but she didn’t know enough about church to realise it didn’t belong there. So she just kept moving towards the chapel.
Tony’s family sat behind her, having followed her in after overhearing these comments.
Jessie sat motionless throughout the service; studying the carpeted floor; showing no response to anything that was said, sung or done. A pew bible, at knee-level for her convenience, may have helped with the pastor’s sermon, but it remained closed.
The service was ending with communion.
Something made Jessie finally look up.
A voice that was fresh, inviting and criticism-free: a wholesome contrast to the “welcome” she had received in the foyer….
“Jesus was executed between two petty crooks, and His only crime was first-degree love! He poured out his lifeblood for the sins of a world that rejected Him, and He has overcome death. But despite His rejection, His heart is open to accept and to forgive anyone who is looking for a new start. This bread and wine symbolises His love, and together they declare that He is here for you.”
Stewards came forward, joining in prayer before moving down the aisles, carrying communion trays to share with their allotted rows of worshippers.
Jessie looked down again, and began shrinking back within herself.
Then something bumped her elbow.
It was a communion tray, shoved from a safe distance by someone who had not even glanced in her direction.
By reflex she took it, and stared at it.
Her breathing became irregular, as her shoulders began heaving with the disjointed rhythm of her weeping. But as she moved to pass the tray along, she heard a second voice.
It was Tony’s father; leaning forward and whispering in her ear: “Take it – it’s for you!”
Hesitation gone, she took a piece of bread and a small cup before passing the tray further along the row.
And she ate and drank.
Tony still vividly recalls seeing the change that occurred before his eyes as Jessie suddenly sat erect. With new strength; and in the lightness of being liberated from self-administered mind-poison that had locked her into agreeing with the gossip that even good Christian people were happy to load in her direction.
So, who was this Tony?
Tony Campolo became a unique international Christian leader; with the ear and the respect of political and business leaders. Not because he said what they wanted to hear, but because could give vulnerable, overlooked people a voice that communicated their dignity as well as their needs.
And he attributes that Sunday morning during his boyhood years as the launch pad for his compassion; from seeing Jessie’s response to his father’s unexpected and unplanned urging to accept God’s grace.
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