He overheard me as I made a telephone call. I was at my favorite table at Barnes & Noble, having a piece of spinach and artichoke Quiche for lunch and making a couple of phone calls to help an individual in need get enough food to make it to the end of the month.
He was sitting at the next table over and he overheard me reference SSI benefits and food pantries. I guess he thought I was a social worker (or something along those lines). He asked me how a person would go about reporting SSI fraud and the conversation began there.
He began pouring his heart out. Clearly he had been looking for someone to listen to him. He was concerned because his children was in the care of his ex-wife, someone he claimed was involved in a number of illegal activities, one of which was defrauding SSI. He was frustrated because everyone he spoke to thought he was just being a vindictive ex-husband, bitterly trying to make his estranged wife’s life miserable.
As we spoke, I could see how one might make that assumption. There was so much anger in his voice as he unraveled the story and gave me his version of events. I guess if I was on the phone, listening to the anger in that voice, I might be tempted to jump to conclusions, too.
I listened. I encouraged him to keep his anger in check, to think of the children first, and to act in a way that would always be above reproach.
Then I turned back to the phone and made another phone call.
This time he overheard me introduce myself as a pastor. And a whole new conversation began.
The anger was still in his voice, but now there was a hurt look in his eyes that I couldn’t ignore. This was a man who was longing for some sort of healing. It was clear his wounds ran deep and perhaps the one that was causing him the most grief was the wound of feeling all alone in his struggles.
As we discussed in more depth the situation of his children, a woman who had just bought a cup of coffee wandered over and began to tell us her story.
Her daughter and son-in-law had divorced and they were each given 50% custody of the children. Prior to the divorce, this woman and her husband had been raising the children and providing financial support–but when the divorce came, the daughter and son-in-law began the divorce-court dance in which they accused each other and used their children as pawns in an attempt to gain control over one another and to inflict hurt back and forth.
She had wounds. She felt she was losing her grandchildren to other people’s war on each other. She was concerned for their well-being and honestly believed the courts were not interested in her role in the children’s lives. She was hurting.
And so we talked. The three of us: A worried grandmother. An angry and hurt father. And a childless preacher.
We talked about wounds. We talked about the things that hurt us, that frighten us, that worry us. And we talked about the things that are important: love and community and relationships.
I had intended to be there only long enough to eat my Quiche, but I wound up staying an hour longer–just talking.
But that’s so much of what ministry (and evangelism) is about. We listen. We talk. And we listen some more. In fact, the listening is the single most important part.
These strangers had wounds that ran deep and they needed to be allowed to lick them, even in this public place, even with a stranger–to let out the toxic thoughts and worries that had been building up inside them and to search for a greater peace in their struggles.
I didn’t solve any great world problems today. I didn’t even solve the problems of these two strangers. But for an hour they had the chance to talk, to be listened to, and not be judged, and I have to believe that made a difference.
Take a moment to just listen. Take a moment to care about someone else’s griefs. In the end, that’s what Jesus did everywhere he went. He cared about the woman mourning a son and the loss of her place in society. He cared about the lepers, cast to the outskirts of town and treated at pariahs. He cared about the crooked tax collector who had a climb a tree just to catch a glimpse of the traveling preacher. And because he cared, he changed lives. And you can, too.