And it came to pass, in their going on, that he entered into a certain village, and a certain woman, by name Martha, did receive him into her house,
and she had also a sister, called Mary, who also, having seated herself beside the feet of Jesus, was hearing the word.- Luke 10:38-39
It has been a while since we saw Igor. An unexpected knock on our door on a Sunday afternoon and he was standing outside smiling. Looking different. Looking very much like a normal twenty year old. Teens living in the streets tend to have a style of their own; the same haircut, similar clothes, a distinctive way of standing, walking and speaking. All these characteristic were absent in the person outside. He wore a dress shirt and he was clean cut and well-groomed. He looked like an average person and this was excellent. He came in and hugged us.
It had taken him almost two hours to get to our place. He lives on the outskirts while we are in the old center. He is staying in a halfway house for drug addicts run by a Pentecostal church. He is not interned there. The church has offered a temporary place for him until he is ready to find a place of his own. He worked briefly restoring furniture in a used furniture store. Igor was the last one employed and when they downsized, he was the first to go. Thankfully, he wasn’t discouraged. He believes that something better will come along. For now, he helps out where ever he can in the halfway house.
Life is the halfway house is very structured. Every one follows a strict schedule including Igor. It is helping him to have the structure that he never had in his life in the streets. He changed the way he dresses and looks; he felt it necessary to leave behind everything that he learned in the streets except for the things that inspire him to become better. I suppose that we are one of the things- well if that wasn’t true, he wouldn’t have spent two hours on the bus to visit us.
Igor was able to stay a year away from the street life. For most of us, a year is not a long time. However, for children and teens who could not bear to be in a new environment for more than hour, one year is quite a significant period. He still feels a strong attachment to his friends. This is understandable. They were the closest thing to a family that he had. He visits them whenever he can. He wants them to know that there is life beyond homelessness. This is a beautiful thing. I asked him if he ever felt tempted to return to the streets, after all, it was his comfort zone. He told us that he never felt comfortable in the streets but it was the only option for him then. Now, he has options.
Igor’s conversation with us was peppered with religious jargon. There is nothing with wrong this. He knows that we are religious and he wants us to know that he is learning this new vocabulary to communicate with us. He is figuring out with each new social group that he encounters he needs to learn how to communicate in a new way. He does not use these words to hide behind them. The words express his genuine feelings and experiences. For us, it was strange to hear them coming out from his mouth. We were used to the old Igor but this new person was beaming with hope and life. He came to share a special event that took place in his life. He was just recently baptized. He said that it was a decision that he pondered seriously. He did not want to be one of those people who find religion and then go back to their old way of living. He wanted to make a life-changing decision. It is evident that this was a genuine one. We cannot but rejoice with him.
I asked Igor what made him make this bold step of leaving everything behind in the streets. Throughout his time in the streets, there have been many religious and social workers who have worked with him. He told us that these people were also present but it was very rare that someone would actually listen to him and help him express his own thoughts and understandings. It was only recently that he met people who took him seriously and allowed him to open up to them. In a simple way, Igor put some flesh and blood to the concept of ministry of presence. It is not just being there but it is being available to the person whom we serve allowing them to open up to us. There are people who want to help but only a few are available to those whom they serve.
Martha and Mary in the text above invited Jesus to their home but only one made herself available to Jesus. The former was busy trying to make sure everything was perfect for Jesus. She didn’t even ask him what he wanted. She assumed that she knew. Mary did absolutely nothing; she just sat and listened. She waited for Jesus to let her know what He desired.
Another incident from some years ago is permanently imprinted in my mind. It was nothing dramatic, just a simple conversation between my friend and an homeless adult in the streets of Montreal. I was doing my final year of seminary then. It was scene that would be common in any big city. We were on our way to a coffee shop when a homeless man sitting on the pavement asked us for some change. Our friend heard him first and turned to him and told him kindly that we were sorry but we didn’t usually give money. My friend then introduced himself and us to this man. He told the man that we would love to sit and chat with him whenever we see him. He assured the man that we would be happy to give him our time freely. I can’t remember the name of this homeless person but never will forget what he said afterwards. He told my friend that he gave him something that was worth much more than anything money could buy. He thanked us for treating him like a human being. The attitude of my friend is an attitude of a person who is available. Today he is a Lutheran pastor of a small church and he continues to avail himself to people of all sorts and conditions. My friend is an ordinary person and he did something very simple and ordinary and made an impact in my life. Mary was an ordinary young woman and we are still reading about her after two thousand years. On the other hand, we shouldn’t think of Martha as a negative example. She was a good person and her intentions to serve were genuine. People like Martha do not have a messiah complex. They are sincere people who want to make this world a better place. I think that it is cruel to degrade people like her. Jesus did not do it. He just showed us a more perfect way.
Being available is not just listening. I have known people who are good listeners but they were not available. Being available means that we genuinely believe that the person to whom we are listening to has something to offer to us. It does not mean that we pretend that the vacuous things that people say are truly profound. Such an attitude in itself is condescending. We have to genuinely believe that people have something to offer even if they appear to be superficial. This is where being a Christian makes a big difference. A Christian believes in the active presence of the Holy Spirit. He or she believes in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all peoples as narrated in the Acts of the Apostles. Then, we must also necessarily believe that the Holy Spirit is present and working in the lives of all people. All peoples, even those who reject God; a hardened atheist has the presence of the Holy Spirit working in him or her. Many times people do not recognize this presence. They might be wrestling the Spirit the way Jacob wrestled with Him (Genesis 32:22-32) and they may not recognize it. They might never find out the true nature of their inner struggles unless they can have the opportunity to share this with someone. People will not often reveal these struggles or questions or insights if they are not sure if the person is truly open to them. When we decide to be available to people, we are not adopting a posture or an attitude but we are engaging in a spiritual discipline. It is a kind of prayer when we ask the Holy Spirit to open the heart of the person to share his or her depth with us. It is something requiring faith on our part; Faith that believes that the Holy Spirit is truly alive and active in our midst.
It is not easy to be Martha in this world. It takes time and energy. However, it is even harder to be a Mary. It means putting aside our prejudices and preconceived notions to listen and believe that the people whom we serve can actually help us to understand God even better. Igor met people who were available to him. They helped him understand his struggles and doubts. They helped him understand that his growing discomfort of the street life was the prompting of the Holy Spirit to move on and seek something better. We hope that we were some of these people who were available to him. The fact that he travelled two hours to see us as a good sign that he considers as such. On our part, I can safely say that we are receiving something from him. Igor did enrich our lives. When we saw him sitting in our living room sharing about the new things in his life, we felt privileged to have a small part in his life. We cannot take credit for the things that are happening in his life. We did not find a place for him to live. We did not get him a job. We did nothing for him in this sense and yet he thought that it was important for us to know all these good things that are happening in his life.