Last minute I agreed to come to a nearby church’s neighborhood festival and take photos for an hour.
After a teary morning, my heart was open and ripe, and looking to meet with Jesus as I headed out of the house alone, my husband remaining at home to try to sleep off his second round of illness over the past few weeks. He sent me with 5 euros in coins, in case I found something I wanted to buy from the vendors there.
Hopping off the tram, the slushy, melting snow from last night followed me all the way down the 10 minute walk into the neighborhood, where the church was nestled. I hopped puddles and carefully avoided rough patches. Needless to say, by the time the church came in view, my boots were a bit soggy.
As I passed by the church windows, I could see the neighborhood choir already assembled. In blacks and reds, smiling faces. Young and hip. Outfits carefully chosen and hair painstakingly fixed. I continued past and arrived at the open gate into the church courtyard. There were already tables set up under tents with the neighborhood vendors and their goodies. A table to my right greeted me when I arrived. An older woman, a ‘bag lady’ as some might call her, was at a table by herself, trying to sell an assortment of second-hand clothing and cards. “Didn’t anyone tell her that this is a market for homemade goods?” I thought, as I noticed the other tables, full of exotically flavored honeys, homemade wines, brightly knitted gloves and hats, and handmade gingerbread dough. “Poor thing. So odd. No wonder no one is at her table.”
I took a few photos, and walked past them all and into the church. I gently opened the inside doors, careful to turn the metal knob in such a fashion that it was less likely to make noise. I slipped in, where the other latecomers gathered in front of the door, still bundled up in their winter coats and mittens.
The choir was marvelous. The sermon from the pastor, or what I could understand of it, was wonderful and poignant, about a little poor babe, come to be God among us. I crept quietly among it all, stealthily taking photos of the tall guitar performer, the choir director passionately directing, the candles so beautifully and marvelously lit. Yet my heart remained untouched, yearning still to hear the heartbeat of our tiny savior.
I saw some little girls sitting on the second row and turned to photograph them. Giggling. Waving, their accompanying mothers vacillating between shame and amusement. A glimpse of the heart of Jesus in these little ones.
I left the sanctuary, quietly. Head bowed, scampering across the front of the sanctuary, seeking to stay out of visual range of the congregation there for the choral performance. I made my way to the side room where I found a little boy, likely a choir member’s son, quietly looking at a book about cats. He had taken a pause to sound out the words on a lightbulb box. My heart soared. A friend.
“Do you like cats?” I asked him in his language.
“Yes! But this book is about cats AND dogs!” he explained to me, showing me the cover which, indeed, said”Dogs and Cats”.
Then he preceded to excitedly show me the different sections in the book, what things they told about the cats, famous cats, tales of cats, cats in different fairytales. He was SO excited to share with me. I nodded, trying to add a few words here and there with my basic language skills, hoping this excited little 8-year-old would not notice I was not native. I was SO happy to be with him, right there, talking, sharing his excitement. My heart filled to fullness.
“Thank you, God, for this little boy. Thank you for my new friend. Thank you that I am not alone.”
I thanked the little boy and headed off to photograph the rest of the day’s events, my heart still searching for that touch of God to heal my sin-sick soul from that morning. Gingerbread icing. Adorable. Children’s crafts perfectly arranged with a beautiful teacher and craftily arranged supplies. An adult’s corner with a poinsettia and apples still life, elegant and warm. I was invited to dine upon pancakes as the storm began to blow in. I sat at a table alone, watching the ‘bag lady’ through the window, outside struggle to put plastic on her secondhand clothes outside and suitcase full of handmade cards to protect her wares from the drizzle.
“Someone should really help her,” I thought. “Maybe I should help her.”
But I was in the middle of a plate of pancakes (said the priest on his way to temple as he passed the Samaritan man in Luke 10), how could I leave the comfort of that warm room, put on my coat and gloves, and then, like an idiot, offer her help she probably didn’t need. Plus… she was a bit… unusual.
Somewhere in between eating the first plate of pancakes and finishing up a small cup of coffee alone in that room full of people, (oh how we can sometimes feel so alone right in the midst of others) I realized my mind had wandered off to somewhere in the New Testament. “Why does Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners?” they had asked.”Doesn’t he realize that by being associated with them that it hurts his reputation?” they had wondered aloud. Today it isn’t shameful, at least in Christian circles, to be seen with the poor, the homeless, the drug addicts on the street, the mentally disabled, the single moms who can’t make ends meet. In fact, that actually makes us heroes. Most of us think that if the situation came up, we would stop and take care of the Samaritan lying on the road if we came across him today because we, personally, are compassionate and caring, just like Jesus.
But my mind wandered to something else. The Christians in my life who are ‘weirdos’, who may even border on insane. I could feel a bit of a panic inside, “Oh, I hope my friends who aren’t church people don’t think that this person and I are actually like one another… oh no…”. They dress weird. They say really weird stuff some times. They babble on and seem to make no sense. They laugh at inappropriate times and make wildly strange statements. They live in a reality that the rest of us don’t live in. They are… well… weird.
Jesus wouldn’t be ashamed to call the ‘weirdos’ his friends. But the reality is that I probably would.
I made my last rounds, talking to a few familiar faces I met along the way. Another trip to the gingerbread station, photos of the cut trees waiting to be sold, people waiting in line to purchase hot mulled wine. All the best shots, to show everyone how successful and fantastic this event was.
I looked at my watch, time to wander back home. But on my way out, I noticed the ‘bag lady’ trying to stuff her secondhand clothing back into two suitcases, her greeting cards under plastic. And without thinking, I turned towards her and blurted out, “Do you need help?” in her native tongue.
She looked at me excitedly and responded. And in my panic (because somehow when someone actually responds to my questions in the language or asks me a question themselves, my brain shuts off and suddenly I cannot remember how to form a single word), I realized I definitely had not thought this through, because now that she was responding with what help she was looking for, I could not understand it.
She noticed my confusion, and switched to Russian.
I stuttered out, in more-broken-than-usual-words, that my language skills weren’t great, but I definitely couldn’t speak Russian, I was an American. She smiled, and for some reason continued speaking Russian, even though I was now speaking to her in her language. After a few minutes of her gesturing and saying things in Russian and me trying to figure out what it is she was asking help for, I realized she was trying to sell me a bucket of honey. The price said 6 euros, but she was telling me that I could have it for 5.
The lightbulb went off in my head. “Ah! This is what the 5 euros were for that my husband gave me!” With glee, I dug them out of my camera bag and handed them to her. I was helping!
“I have actually exactly 5 euros!” I said with a smile, handing them to her proudly.
Patting myself on my back internally for my good deed (although 5 euros for that huge bucket of honey was actually a steal, as you pay twice that in the market) I was glad I could “help” this needy woman with those monies.
And then, the Jesus that my heart had been seeking to encounter that afternoon, showed up in the most unlikely place. The woman took a bag from her pile of secondhand clothing. A woolen bag that was handmade and happily put the honey inside, still babbling in Russian. I confirmed, in her language, that she was gifting this to me. “Yes, yes,” she was. I truly felt grateful, even though I absolutely did not want that bag.
I paused and asked her name. As she looked at me and smiled and told me her name I noticed for the first time her rotting, browned teeth. But there was something that was shining in her. She asked me my name. I answered. Then, babbling in Russian, she kept making the sign of the cross. I said, “I am a Christian.” She made it again, I think, judging by her voice tone and questioning look, asking if I believed in the trinity. This seemed an odd question. “Yes, I believe in the father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.”
Her face lit up and she dived underneath the plastic, covered in rain, to the suitcase beneath it. She pulled out a pack of cards and offered it to me.
I glanced at them. The cards were handmade, painstakingly drawn. Surprisingly, beautiful. I was in shock, somehow. “Are these… Are these a gift for me? I don’t have any more money to give you.”
Yes, yes, they were absolutely a gift for me. And somehow, in her kind gesture of these beautiful cards, I met the Jesus I was looking for as he reached down from heaven in the person of this odd ‘bag lady’ and gave me a sweet, sweet gift. It wasn’t so much the cards, but her. She was the gift, this woman who saw me. I froze, looked her in the eyes, and began to weep. She teared up too, and embraced me. We stood in the cold and drizzle as she wrapped me in a bear hug and I cried on her shoulder.
Jesus incarnate. I just met him.
Freaked out by my own emotions, I thanked her again through tears and ran off in a daze, weeping as I wandered down the street, back through the slush, tailing behind a group of super hip and well-dressed girls.
“I just met Jesus. He loves me. He loves me. He loves me.”
Just as the wise men found the King of Kings in the most unlikely place, as a helpless toddler, born in a barn to a poor family, too weak to give them anything, so I found Jesus in the most unlikely place, as an odd bag lady who, for an instant, poured out her love on me, when I was the one looking to help her.
Jesus turns everything upside down.
And the interesting thing, as I look through the photos I took of the event, there isn’t a single photo of the little boy with the cat book or the bag lady with her secondhand clothes. Why? Because they weren’t impressive, and were so easy to disregard as unimportant. Just like a little baby born in a manger to an unimportant family.
Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. Hallelujah. In the most unlikeliest of places.
This post was written by one of our PALS in eastern Europe.