Marcia’s voice cracked as she spoke. “Hello, Mrs. Clark, is your husband home? I’d like to wish him Happy Father’s Day.”
I handed the phone to Jim, smiled and said, “Your other daughter is calling.”
Months before, while sitting at my computer, an e-mail caught my attention. The subject line read, “Young woman, broken and alone.” The sender was Dr. Robert Campbell, a local internal medicine specialist who had opened an inner city clinic# to reach the poor of Augusta.
“Marcia fled an abusive relationship and is now in a temporary shelter. Will you meet with her?”
On my way to meet her, it occurred to me, I don’t even know what she looks like.
Fear and loneliness didn’t require a description. Twenty-nine -year-old Marcia Mitchell, an African-American woman, sat in the back of the restaurant and brushed tears from her face. She jumped at every noise; her eyes locked onto each customer who walked in.
When she saw me, Marcia jumped to her feet and wrapped her arms around me. “Are you the woman Dr. Campbell sent to help me?”Marcia’s voice cracked as she spoke.
I still had no idea what help looked like. The inside of my gut churned. “You hungry?” We sat and talked for two hours over diet coke and chicken snack wraps.I touched her on the shoulder. “Tell me how you came to be in a shelter.”
Marcia leaned forward. “I don’t earn enough money to make it. Bills I couldn’t pay kept coming. Then I met Jonathan# . He offered to move in and help with expenses. He was good to me, at first. After a while, he grew controlling. When I did something he didn’t like, I caught his wrath. One night, I thought he was going to kill me. So I just got out. I didn’t take anything with me. Just got out of there. I’m in Safehomes# right now, but I have to leave in two weeks.”
Safehomes (and most shelters) placed a time limit of 30 days on how long a woman could stay. Although they do their best to help battered women relocate, many have no choice but to return to their abuser when their options dwindled. At the time I met with her at McDonald’s, Marcia worked two jobs and still struggled to survive.
She continued. “What I did was wrong, letting a man move in with me, and I paid a terrible price.”
Indeed she did. Continued to pay.
Marcia Mitchell, without a home, adequate income or a family to “fall back on,” qualified as a modern version of both the widow and orphan. What did it mean for her to live in community with other believers?
Although risky and slightly insane, I believed the Lord called me to bring Marcia into my home. As I began to pray, several passages of Scripture came to mind. Hebrews 13 exhorts us, “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Job modeled radical hospitality when he said, “the sojourner has not lodged in the street; I have opened my doors to the traveler.” (Job 31:32, ESV). In Matthew 25, in the day of final judgment, radical hospitality is a mark of those on Jesus’ right. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” or “invited me in,” as some translations read.
Marcia and I agreed to talk again in a week. Meanwhile, I prayed and pitched the idea of radical hospitality to my husband.
Jim, the engineer with a keen sense of detail, asked hard questions. How can we be certain that this woman’s abuser would not put our family at risk? Is Marcia sure she is ready to leave her abuser permanently? How wise is it to invite a stranger into our home?
A sense of relief filled my heart as I prepared to hear Jim’s rejection. Of course this was unwise, I mean, we can’t save everyone we encounter—
Jim squeezed my hand. “I think God is calling us to it.”
What? Had I heard the man?
I contacted a police officer in our church for additional advice. He told me Marcia’s abuser was well known to the sheriff’s department and a very dangerous man. “The cop in me says don’t do it, but the Christian in me says go for it. I can encourage additional patrols in your neighborhood. It’s a good thing you live so close to the police station.”
We waited a week before we invited Marcia to live with us. Perhaps she would find an apartment? As Marcia’s alternatives for housing dwindled, I realized how much confidence we placed in the secular community around us to care for the orphan and widow without ever truly understanding the limitations those agencies face. What did we expect someone like Marcia to do?
Dr. Paul Tripp writes, “We are not self-sufficient in any way. We are constantly dependent on God and others in order to live. Self-sufficiency is a delusion. Hundreds and hundreds of people have contributed to what we know, to what we are able to do, to what we have become . . . We were made for community.”
Our invitation shocked her. “Really? You guys would do that? I mean, what in the world? Are you sure? Listen at me. Thank you. Really, thank you.”
When our deacons learned Marcia had a large loan from Titlebucks that would take years to pay off at a hideous interest rate, they paid the debt in full.
I handed the title of her car back to her and said, “Promise me that Titlebucks and all agencies like them are part of your past. If you need help, we’re your family now.”
When tax season came, Marcia expected about a $300 return. Jim frowned. “That doesn’t sound right. May I take a look with you at your forms?” Together in front of a computer, Jim carefully typed in numbers as Marcia called them out. Two hours later, Jim said, “I double checked this, and it looks like your return is $1200, not $300. I like that number better, don’t you?”
Marcia burst into tears and hugged his neck. “No one had ever showed me all this before—helped me figure out a budget, and plan for the future. Nobody believed I had a future.”
After living with us for two and half months, Marcia located an affordable apartment downtown near several members of our church. She learned to maintain a budget. Since she has moved out, she ran out of money twice before the month’s end and she asked me for a loan. She took only half of what I offered. “I want to be able to pay you back.”
She did. Both times.
God does not call every family to the front lines of radical hospitality. I don’t claim to have all the answers to racial reconciliation, poverty and domestic violence. But I have to wonder. What would look different in the body of Christ if more of its members were willing to risk for the sake of another? I think part of the answer was in the Father’s Day phone call:
“Thank you, Mr. Clark, for showing me how things ought to be. You taught me how a man should love his wife and children. The love in your house spilled over to me. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.”
About the author: Gaye Clark is a freelance writer and cardiac nurse who lives in Augusta, Georgia, with her husband Jim and their two teenage children Anna and Nathan. She remains active in inner city ministry.
Sidebar: approximately 225 words
10 Things to Consider before inviting a stranger in:
1. In the case of domestic violence, ask the woman to commit to severing the relationship with her abuser permanently.
2. Be certain your entire family favors the invitation and is capable of maintaining basic precautions for your family’s safety.
3. Have the local abuse shelter or housing authority run a background check on the woman to insure the need is legitimate.
4. Communicate ahead of time in writing your house rules and expectations. Revisit that list frequently.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from church members. Accept offers for meals, help with moving belongings, or transportation to and from work, childcare, etc.
6. Make your neighbors and local police aware of your circumstances.
7. Be patient. A woman in crisis may have difficulty planning her afternoon, let alone the following week. Help her make lists and prioritize her needs.
8. Create margins in your schedule: this is no ordinary houseguest. Be available to talk, pray and listen. Limit unnecessary demands on your time and energy.
9. Encourage her to communicate often with friends and family with whom she had healthy relationships in the past. Abusers often cut off or discourage such contact.
10. Recognize radical hospitality comes with enormous risks. There is no “happily ever after” guarantee. While that may be true, seek to look at current disappointments through the lens of eternity. God often changes hearts over a matter of years, not months.