We had learned to love Frank with his generous smile and free spirit. Totally uninhibited, he readily engaged anyone in animated conversations. “We’re friends” he would say to those he met. Yet he was a troubled single man with some psychological problems. Occasionally, he arrived at our inner city community centre and church wearing inappropriate clothing and carrying a large, purple purse. He never seemed to have any money and lived in various places: on the streets, in his own rented room, in a shelter, or with his sister, who was also on disability. Sometimes when he came to worship at the church I mumbled a quick prayer: “God, please don’t let him disrupt the service again.”
On one occasion he came in late, immediately marched to the front, and offered to sing a song. Before I could respond, he began singing “Amazing Grace.” The sanctuary suddenly became silent as his voice filled the room. All the unholy chatter, along with the order of worship for the day, disintegrated as we were left to breathe in the Spirit in pure form. The presence and miraculous power of the Holy One left no one untouched. Frank’s clear tenor voice matched that of any professional singer. That morning, he became our Ben Heppner.1
One evening my wife Doreen and I were relaxing, playing a game of Scrabble. Our four young children had reminded me that the next day would be my birthday. We heard a quick knock on the door, and there was Frank, very excited.
“I’ve got something for you!”
Soon he was seated at our kitchen table and the coffeepot was on. Frank could hardly wait to hand me the envelope. His eyes beamed with satisfaction, and his white teeth glowed in a broad grin that contrasted with his dark complexion. “This is all I have,” he cried out. The card read:
A special birthday greeting
that someone gladly sends,
not just because your birthday’s here,
but more because we’re friends.
In his handwriting were the scribbled words, “To Hugo, God bless always, from Frank.” Tumbling out of the envelope came a five dollar bill, along with some loose change.
I must confess my inner reaction was similar to that of Judas in John 12:1-8: “Frank, the card’s okay, but the precious cash . . . you shouldn’t have. You don’t have a lot of money. You’re poor, and you don’t know how to budget. Where will you get money for breakfast tomorrow? Frank, it’s foolish to give what you yourself need. Why wasn’t this money given to the poor?”
I was clearly mimicking Judas, who criticized Mary for offering her gift of expensive perfume. “But no,” I thought. “I don’t want to be like Judas. I’m not that kind of guy. Or am I?”
Also in that story was Mary, whom Jesus affirmed in front of all the criticizers. What lavish and surpassing love to present Jesus with that special, costly fragrance!
And Frank, what gracious love you have shown me. You have given everything you have!
Suddenly, a powerful, new warmth filled the room. The scene of Mary’s generous gift to her Savior was replayed right in our own home.
Doreen and I invited Frank to the piano. We sang and laughed and fellowshipped into the night, forgetting about the time. After a rather exuberant song, Frank burst out, “I haven’t had this much fun in a long time!”
“Neither have we!” we chimed in.
All of a sudden, Frank looked at his watch. Then he looked outside. It was totally dark. I sensed him thinking about the long walk home and about how he should have left earlier. But it was so good to be there together.
He fumbled in his pockets, took out his wallet, opened it, and shook it. It was empty. After a moment of hesitation he gently asked, “Would you be able to spare me some money for bus fare?
We gladly gave him a five dollar bill—a different five dollars—and with “God bless you,” he was on his way. A new kind of giving and receiving, reinforced by the Mary and Jesus story, had been etched in the deepest parts of our souls.
- “… so God created humankind in God’s image …” (Genesis 1:27). People in our society tend to characterize persons such as Frank as primarily needy and problematic, deserving of pity and possible assistance to keep them off the street and out of our way. How will our attitudes change if we see such individuals first and foremost as being formed in the image of God, with much God-given potential?
- “The rich and poor meet together; The Lord is the Maker of them all.” (Proverbs 22:2, KJV) A relationship had developed between Frank and Hugo that had begun earlier when Frank had come to the Church and Community Center for food. In our story Hugo and Doreen discover the miracle and the beauty (singing and laughing and fellowshipping into the night and forgetting about the time), that happens when persons of different social classes meet together, thereby discovering their united spiritual heritage. What possibilities are there for you, your congregation and your social group to meet together with those of a different social and/or economic level?
- “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us…” (Romans 12:6 a) By highlighting the gifts of some persons more than the gifts of others, it is easy to overlook the contributions of people who are different than we are. When people like Frank bring their gifts, our reactions can sound like those of the disciple Judas, as portrayed in our story. Reflect what would have been lost if Frank’s gifts had not been recognized in the church and in Hugo and Doreen’s home? Are we skeptical of the gifts that people living below the poverty line can bring to us? Do we mimic Judas?
- “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”(Amos 5:24) Justice as God would have it requires a context where all persons have the opportunity to give and receive. Social structures can be oppressive and keep people in poverty. In our country it is hard for us to see the contributions that unemployed people, including persons like Frank, can make. Unfortunately many of our social service systems place such individuals as primarily in the category of recipients. Even our religious works of charity, with the ever expanding food kitchens and food banks, don’t go far enough. Basically while helpful, they reinforce an attitude where one group of people are the givers and people with power, while the others are the receivers and people with no power and nothing to give. We need to move further than be satisfied with works of charity that are primarily on the giving side.
What actions might be taken to change social and religious systems so that they also appeal to the contributions that those needing to rely on hand outs can bring?
- “…he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18)In our story Frank was able to demonstrate a new kind of giving and receiving, where relationship was more important than being attached to material things. Indeed, Frank gave everything he had, not just his excess. When he had overstayed his time and needed money for a bus ticket because it was too late to walk, he was not afraid to ask for assistance. Such giving and receiving is good news to both those who have much material wealth and to those who live below the poverty line. Reflect on Frank’s prophetic gift to us, teaching us a form of giving and receiving. Would Jesus applaud this type of exchange?
Hugo Neufeld, and his wife Doreen, co-directed and co-pastored the Welcome Inn Community Centre in Hamilton, Ontario for 18 years. This ministry was begun and receives ongoing support from Hamilton Mennonite Church and the wider Mennonite Church of Eastern Canada. Further support comes from a range of ecumenical, government, industry, and community sources. Frank’s story is adapted from Hugo’s book of stories, The North End Lives, a Journey through Poverty Terrain published by Herald Press, Scottdale, Pennsylvania, 2006.
Today Hugo lives in Calgary, Alberta, where together with his wife they have been involved in a variety of ministries including interim pastoral work.
- 1. The Canadian tenor who performs in the world’s foremost opera and concert halls.