When I was pastor at Cordova Presbyterian Church in Rancho Cordova, many strangers came to the church office for assistance. Coloma Road was and is a busy street, with folks wandering back and forth at all times of day. Many made their way to our doors with a need for food, desiring rental assistance, in a life crisis, or just not knowing where to find the help they needed. At the time, I often saw these people as a nuisance, their requests taking me away from caring for the members of the congregation. Now I know that these strangers passing through my life were presenting me with real opportunities to experience the reign of God in my life.
One of the people I met this way was a man named Alfio. Alfio was a friendly guy, a short and wide man of indeterminate age, a bit scruffy looking, who would show up regularly at my office. He lived in government subsidized housing just a few blocks from the church. Often he would ask for a bit of help obtaining a meal. I usually gave him coupons for a sandwich or two at the local Burger King. In fact, he was one of the people I began to help on a fairly regular basis. Though I am not proud of this, but when I gave people a handout in those days, I would secretly hope that I wouldn’t see them again, as I much preferred to focus on my meetings, sermons, and bible studies. It began that way with Alfio as well.
But it didn’t continue that way. Alfio kept coming back. Even when I told him I didn’t have any food coupons to give him on a particular day, he just stayed and enjoyed the conversation. He inquired about my life, my family, and my own history. We celebrated the fact that we both had Italian ancestry. Sadly, I don’t remember too much about his life. But three things I do remember. He had Roman Catholic background (and seemed to worship regularly at the local Catholic Church). He lived in New Orleans for a time. And he once sang opera in New York. Though I don’t know that he sang for the Metropolitan, it would not have surprised me. Unlike the way I responded to many people—with suspicion and doubt—I believed Alfio’s stories. There was a mutuality he offered me that I did not often experience from many others. He was like a long lost uncle who had wandered into my life.
One day, when we were talking about his musical history, Alfio offered to sing a solo in one of our worship services. Cordova Presbyterian was a small church, and it was not out of the ordinary for someone from the membership to perform a song on a particular Sunday. That said, Alfio was not known to many people in our church, though he did occasionally show up at worship services. As I recall, I spoke to our music director and organist and we agreed to have Alfio sing on a “quiet” Sunday sometime in the summer. None of us was really willing to risk having this fellow embarrass himself and or mess up worship on some important Sunday. I don’t remember what Alfio sang that day, but I remember that he dutifully rehearsed with Laura Jane (our organist) and sang wonderfully in the service. His musical offering was well received, though I wonder if at least part of the reception he received was the novelty value and a bit of sympathy for a man who seemed down on his luck.
Later in the year, though, Alfio had another proposal. He wanted to sing “Ave Maria” (by Schubert) for our Christmas Eve service. (It is one of the versions that people know well. If you do a web search on “Ave Maria” and look for videos, the first thing you will see listed is Luciano Pavarotti’s singing the Schubert version.)
Though I was eager to have Alfio sing for the congregation, I worried. Protestants are not usually known for singing “Ave Maria” on Christmas Eve. Many of us honor Mary, but are troubled by things that hinted at worship of her. Any version of “Ave Maria” would do nothing to discourage some people believing that this was borderline blasphemy. Then there was our music leadership. Both our choir director and organist were unsure that having Alfio sing was really a great idea. Of all the services of the year—Christmas Eve was one that we all thought required the highest degree of excellence and commitment. Could Alfio do that? Could someone “off the street” have this special of a place in the worship life of our church? Were we willing to set aside our pride and offer our place?
Now if this were a tale of real holiday sentiment, Alfio would have ended up singing for the service, and by midnight all of us would have gone home humbled, contrite, and converted—as if we had just met the Little Drummer Boy in the flesh. As it happened, we did agree to “let” Alfio sing for Christmas Eve worship. He was extremely good at what he did—though he displayed a bit of age and lack of practice—but wonderful none the less. He moved many of us with his passion and skill. I was proud of him and glad that he was part of our worship experience that evening. It was good to see a friend do well. It was good to be surprised. It was good to have our own suspicions and doubts undermined. It was good to have this window into God’s presence.
The truth, however, is that I patted myself on the back way too much. I was self-satisfied enough to think I had “fought the power” of the music purists in our congregation. I was patronizing enough to congratulate my ability to “help” an outcast. I was proud enough to think I had shattered resistance to things (like the Catholic appreciation of Mary) that were unfamiliar in our tradition. Truth be told, I fooled myself into thinking that I had been compassionate and revolutionary and that God was at work in me.
But none of that is true. God was not in me. God was in Alfio. God came wanting to sing a song of love and praise. God came willing to ask for what was needed. God showed up with a mumbling voice, and suspect memories, and unwashed clothes and asked me to listen. God challenged me with an awkward smelly hug and a request to take him seriously. God sang that night whether I heard it or not. God was in Alfio.
Spiritual Practice: Let Someone Surprise You
I am not very open minded. I have very clear opinions of what people can do and how they communicate. But every so often people surprise me. Every so often they offer so much more than I had imagined. Every so often, they call into question my presuppositions.
I am not proud of my closed mindedness. But I am very aware of it. And I believe I can work against it. Sometimes it is a simple as releasing expectations about who someone is and what they can or can’t do. Sometimes it means just saying “yes” to a person instead of the expected “no.” Sometimes it means depending on an outside perspective to help me see a person in a new light. Sometimes it just means believing that every person is far bigger than the reputation that precedes them. Sometimes it means trusting that people are more mysterious than we want to accept.
So that is the practice. Let people surprise you. Your child. Your spouse. Your friend. The stranger in front of you in line at Target. The woman who just asked you for a dollar. The acquaintance who just insulted your politics. Yourself. Anyone. You just might see them for the first time.