One early morning in Africa, I got a knock on the door. Abe had already walked to work for the day, and I was sprawled over the stone floor to stay cool.
It didn't feel like 7am. The sun already beat down harshly on our tin roof, and the air sat heavy and thick. I answered the knock and found a teenage girl standing at our door with a wide smile and large, vacant eyes. Everyone is family in Africa, so I welcomed her to our table and brought a cup of cold water. We sat awkwardly for a minute. My French was a work in progress, and my knowledge of cultural hospitality was elementary. I knew that it was polite to ask for the news before asking anything else, so I asked her if she had news. She didn't. I said I liked her sandals. She said she liked my hair. I swatted some flies to pass the time. Then it came out. She said she'd seen me walk a picnic breakfast to her neighbors a week before. "Do you have any bread here?" That was why she'd come.
I excused myself to look for bread. We walked to an outdoor bakery every day for our bread, so leftovers were scarce. Actually, the cupboards were mostly bare except for some boiled eggs, dry rice and beans, and a few very ripe bananas. I frantically scoured our little one-room studio and returned to explain a little self-consciously that we didn't have any bread. I offered to bring out what we had, but she shook her head. I asked next if I could make her some freshly squeezed lemonade. She shook her head. And she again asked, "Do you have any bread?" Again, I told her that we didn't. "No bread in the whole house?" She was skeptical.
I asked if I could walk her to the bakery for some bread. No, she didn't want that.
HOW WE LEARNED TO RUN
Driving by homeless people makes almost every one I know feel uncomfortable.
Here's my guess. I think it itches our heart to see need. It's so awkward that we almost don't want to talk about it to each other. But driving by makes us face it. Whether it's doing something or saying something or doing nothing, we choose. And if we're honest, most of us choose to do nothing.
What taught us to feel so awkward about seeing need? Why is our natural instinct to run from helping people?
I think it shows something deeply rooted in all of our hearts. Self-preservation. Our own need. The need to be safe. And where the greatest needs are, that's where we tend to run away the fastest. Not every one. Just anyone who's like me and feels uncomfortable around needy people.
Somehow we learned. And somewhere, it became a habit. We were taught to not become victims of victims. At least I was.
PSA: AVOID PEOPLE AT ALL COST
The coronavirus is a strange chapter to be living out for our future history books.
What will the books say? Sometimes I try to imagine the stories we'll tell our grandkids. People were afraid. We stayed ten feet away in grocery stores and parks. Everyone looked at each other suspiciously. Some didn't believe it. They thought the whole thing was a conspiracy.
Here's why I know that COVID-19 is nothing special. It's because of the homeless people and my friend who wanted bread in Africa.
There have always been needs. We have always had fear of need. At least we've always felt awkward about it. I called my 86 year-old grandmother the other day to chat, and asked her if she'd ever seen anything like COVID-19 in her lifetime. She thought a moment and said this: "There's always been something."
We've been plagued for longer than we think, but not by the coronavirus.
Cynicism makes victims of us all. Without meaning to, we live in fear of the needy people we might see. Of becoming needy people. Of being weighed down by victims until we become victims ourselves.
Here's why that's dangerous. It makes us retreat inward. We become skeptics. That skepticism makes us close down in times of crises, when the need is greatest. When our neighbor asks for bread, or the stranger in the grocery store could be carrying a virus and take our share of toilet paper.
The worst part is that it can all hide under the blanket of self-preservation. We've never been more comfortable being selfish. We feel like heroes hiding away.
The problem isn't COVID-19. The problem is that for many of us, this was a lifestyle to begin with. We didn’t need an excuse to avoid people and just think about ourselves. We were already there. Our state announced the stay-at-home order and we heaved a sigh of relief.
THE VACUUM SALESMAN Here's the best sales pitch I ever heard. This salesman came to our door with a vacuum one day in New Mexico, and we let him in. We let him in, and we let him drive his overpriced vacuum all over our carpets, and he spent a couple hours shampooing a Turkish rug dad bought overseas one time. The worst part is that we bought the vacuum. Maybe to get him to leave. I remember sitting there looking at our wet Turkish rug, thinking about how the best way to sell expensive thing no-one-needs is to wave in people's faces until they look and sit on their couch and compliment their hair and not leave until they buy in.
I think we have a lot of good reasons to be cynical and fearful. Generations of vacuum salesmen made sure of that. We don't buy in anymore. Or we run, because years of facing needy people knocking on our door has made us feel like heroes for saving our Self.
Some of us are looking at COVID-19 like a bad sales pitch. Others look at it like a death sentence. I like how my grandma looks at it. There's always been something.
I know it's possible to love people right now, and the reason I know is my friend Hannah Rose. She arranged a parade the other day just to make one of her students feel loved on their birthday. Hannah worked hard to love people before COVID-19. She works hard now too. It looks different than a lot of people, even though it's still 10-feet away.
HUGGING A THORN BUSH
I've always been sort of a cynic. I hate that. Around the time I was in college, I started asking God to soften my skeptic, self-preserving heart and break it for people like His heart broke. If you don't believe that God answers prayer, pray for Him to break you. He sent a lot of people like bread-girl into my life. It was really inconvenient.
I did some research later on my friend who came to the door asking for bread. I learned that she didn't have parents, that she lived in a community house. I also learned that what she'd done was rude, even for a very communal-style culture. That didn't matter to me. What mattered was that I am a person who takes the easy-way out, and this knock on the door was a God-given opportunity to awkwardly work out that run-instinct in my heart.
Here's my point. Be patient with me. Our instinct to hide right now has nothing to do with the coronavirus. We are scared, lonely people who act out of fear, pride, and insecurity. We are needy people, acting out of desperation. We are cynical people, acting from years of experience with vacuum salesmen.
Scripture is full of people who did hard things at inconvenient times to show the love of Christ. One of my personal favorites is Paul. We even know that he had a "thorn in his flesh" the whole time he was out spreading the gospel (2 Corinthians 12). We don't know what that thorn was. We just know that it made things inconvenient, and that he learned to embrace it so that God would get even more glory.
COVID-19 is our future chapter of history right now. Masks are required. Church is cancelled. There's a 10-foot ban on human contact. Streets and coffee shops are emptied out. But our call to love as Christ has loved us is not canceled.
Maybe the hard thing right now–the heroic thing–is not about sitting on your couch hiding from people and thinking of the coronavirus as a sleazy sales pitch. Maybe the hard thing is finding new ways to care about people from a distance.
This is a public service announcement. Our responsibility to love people has not changed. Those of us who were avoiding it anyway, we can still avoid it. Those of us who were procrastinating, we have a good excuse right now. Those of us who worked hard to love people before like my friend Hannah Rose, we can still love them. We aren't out of options.
If I were a salesman, I’d try to sell you on this: to love needy people in an unsafe world, where we have thorns and masks and needs of our own. Make that phone call. Drop off those groceries. Pray. Throw a birthday party from an SUV. For goodness' sake wash your hands, but not from the responsibility of loving needy people.
And when this is over, we can tell a story to our grandkids about a quieter, simpler, less-convenient chapter of life we lived through where we chose love even when it was hard.