How do I know whether I have missed an opportunity or had a near miss with trouble? As I burst through the doors of a department store into the parking lot on Monday morning, a short, older woman also exiting the store shouted to me, “Are You going near Poplar and Perkins?” With graying hair, a shopping bag, a purse, and a cane, she hardly looked threatening. I said “No, I’m not. Are you looking for a ride?” She nodded her head. I said, “I’m sorry.” And I have felt horrible ever since. We were very near the cross streets she mentioned. How much trouble would it have been to give her a lift?
When the unfamiliar woman asked me for help, my city armor went up. All of my training tells me to beware of the stranger. Stay alert; keep watch. Trust no one. You never know what an old lady hides in her shopping bag or her purse or what she is capable of with a cane.
When I lived in Cleveland Heights, Ohio in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I often went to a bakery in a predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. One day after I had purchased my usual one-pound hunk of pumpernickel raisin bread from the ten-pound loaf on the counter, an older woman said to me:, “YOU! You will give me a ride home.” After a stunned moment of silence, I said, “Sure” or “Certainly” and I drove her home. I was surprised by her request, but I wasn’t scared; taking care of each other in this community was the norm, whether people knew each other or not. But that was twenty-five years ago. Since then, I have exercised exceptional caution; I have learned cynicism. My feelings have hardened and my fears have increased. I stay watchful and alert, but not in an Advent mode of open-eyed, open-hearted expectancy. It’s more like I watch my back. I am neither proud nor happy about this.Did I play it wisely safe to refuse an unknown person a ride? Or did I miss an opportunity to “entertain angels unawares?” I will probably never know, but I suspect the latter. If Jesus is about anything, he’s about welcoming the outcast, the needy, and the oppressed. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2 NRSV) Advent is the season of angels. It’s pretty clear that if Mary’s angel had come to me, I would have run the other way. I do not want to spend the rest of my life in fear, always saying “No” for my own protection. I want to risk saying “Yes” and to extend hospitality and kindness to strangers and angels alike.