Some of the biggest news stories the last few weeks have been about innocent strangers being shot by someone who felt threatened by the stranger. A teenager was shot when he rang the doorbell at the wrong address where he had driven to pick up his younger twin brothers. A young woman was shot and killed because she drove into a wrong driveway on her way to a friend’s house. These stories prompted me to remember times when I’ve been afraid because an unexpected stranger appeared at my door.
The first time that happened Mim and I were living in a two-flat in Chicago. It was about 7:30 in the morning on a cold winter day, and I was leaving for work. As I left our upstairs apartment and went down the inside stairway, I smelled smoke and wondered where it was coming from. I knew the woman who lived in the first floor apartment was out of town on business that week, so the smoke shouldn’t be coming from her apartment. I continued down the stairway and used my key to unlock the deadbolt. I cautiously opened the door to the entryway. A homeless man was slouched on the floor smoking a cigarette butt. I pulled the door shut again as fast as I could and re-locked the deadbolt. I ran back upstairs into our apartment and locked that door, as well.
Mim and I were scared. We decided the safest solution to our predicament would be to call 911. About half an hour later, a squad car arrived with two policemen. They grabbed the homeless man, pulled him up from the floor and pushed him out onto the street. They yelled at him to never come back. The officers came up to our apartment to be sure we were okay, and then they left. I waited a little longer before going to work. I didn’t want to run into the homeless man on my three-block walk to the “el” stop.
I wrote about this incident in my book, Come, Lord Jesus, Be Our Guest: Adventures in Hospitality. “That was the day we saw Jesus hungry, and we didn’t give him anything to eat. We saw him thirsty, and we didn’t give him anything to drink. We saw him as a stranger, and we didn’t welcome him.” In retrospect, I wish we had treated the homeless man with kindness rather than being controlled by fear.
The second time I was afraid because an unexpected stranger appeared at our door, Mim and I were living in our farmhouse in Wisconsin. I described this encounter in a later chapter of my book.
At 4:00 a.m. one cold, fall morning, the doorbell rang. Mim walked toward the door, but asked me to get our dog Megabyte out of her crate where she slept, put a leash on her, and to follow her to the door. Mim opened the door, and there stood a shivering, bleeding young man wearing torn pants and a tee-shirt. The temperature was about 30 degrees. He said he had been in a bicycle accident. He asked if he could come inside and use our phone to call for help.
We let him in, and he tried to call a friend for help, but no one answered the call.
As a former ER nurse, Mim knew his bleeding arm needed to be cleaned up. Megabyte and I kept an eye on him while Mim went to get her first aid supplies. While she cleaned him up, he told us his story.
He was a college student at UW-Whitewater, about twenty miles east of us. He and some buddies had been out drinking, and decided to bike 40 miles to Madison. As they approached Cambridge, a police car began following them. Not wanting to get caught for under-age drinking, they pedaled as fast as they could. When there was a fork in the road, he got separated from his buddies.
By the time we had heard that much of his story, Mim had cleaned up his cuts, but he was still shivering pretty badly. I found a sweatshirt to give him, along with a blanket. We said he could lie down on the couch in the sun room for a few hours, and then he could try again to call his friend. Meanwhile, we kept Megabyte in the sun room as our guard dog.
Later that morning, he finally reached his girlfriend by phone, and several hours later she came to get him. We actually felt sorry for the poor guy when we saw how much verbal abuse he got from her. If I were him, I would have been afraid to go home with her!
We never heard from the guy again, but we’re thankful that God had brought him to our door. We were the right people that could help him with his immediate needs. Mim could clean up his bleeding arm. I could give him a warm sweatshirt. And Megabyte could help us feel safe as we helped a stranger in need, even if he was a stranger who had used poor judgment earlier in the night.
In looking back on our experience with the second stranger coming to our door, I’m glad that we treated him with kindness, and we didn’t let our fears prevent us from helping him.
The next time a stranger comes to our door, I don’t know what I’ll do. I know I won’t shoot because I don’t have a gun. I might open the door with my dog at my side, pray, and hope for the best. Or, if I’m really scared, I might keep the door locked, pray, and call 911. Whatever I choose to do, I hope kindness influences my decision as much as fear.
A family portrait – Mim, her mom, and me in front of our farmhouse. Megabyte is the blond dog on the left. Even though we used her as our guard dog, she was the epitome of kindness. The black dog is Maia, who could actually be more frightening, but she was more difficult to control on leash.
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