Since I live in one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S., I always imagined the "least of these," those people Jesus instructed us to look after during our time here on earth, lived very far away. I thought observing this command required herculean effort, such as joining a missions trip to Zimbabwe or seeking out a soup kitchen in rougher city neighborhoods.
But the day I answered an ad in my church bulletin, all that changed.
The ad was a call for volunteers to help with the free English as a Second Language (ESL) classes World Relief offers to immigrants and refugees in our corner of suburban Chicago. I've always loved talking with people from other cultures, so I dialed the phone number listed. Soon I was spending my Wednesday evenings in a church basement with people from around the globe.
At first it was intimidating to explain kitchen terms, past participles, and the countless exceptions of the English language to people from Iraq, Somalia, Mexico, and the Ukraine. But I loved the conversations we had during the break in the middle of class. Over instant coffee, I asked students about their jobs, families, and homelands.
I was amazed at how many of the students worked more than one job—often as busboys or cooks, factory workers, or housekeepers for local hotels or cleaning services. They all seemed hungry to talk about their exhausted lives and to ask questions about the complexities of American culture. The latter brought much laughter, such as the time we helped a Somali woman realize smoked turkey is a sandwich ingredient, not an inhaled narcotic!
A couple years into this volunteer stint, I noticed one of our students—Dula from the former Yugoslavia—walking to class in the snow. I offered her a lift home, and when we arrived at the small two-bedroom apartment she shares with her family of four, she invited me in for coffee. A tradition was born that night. I gave Dula rides to and from class, she gave me dangerously strong coffee and a peek into the world of an immigrant. We watched Fear Factor, ate European chocolates, shared about our differing religious beliefs, and talked about her tedious job as a cleaning lady.
A funny thing happened as I got to know Dula and the rest of these hard-working new friends. My eyes began to open to a whole group of people right under my nose every day. I started paying attention to busboys, clerks at the local dry cleaners, hotel cleaning staff. People struggling to make a living. The "least of these" in my own backyard. I'm embarrassed to admit these folks had been invisible to me before.
I found myself suddenly noticing these people. Looking them in the eye. Smiling at them. And saying "thank you."
It was a tiny thing, really. But a huge first step in learning to love the least of these. Obviously, we've got to see and acknowledge these people before we can love them. Some days loving them is as simple as offering an appreciative smile or a heartfelt "have a nice day." Bestowing worth and dignity by not taking them for granted, by not letting them remain invisible. Other days, when God opens the door, loving them involves offering a ride, a listening ear, or a word of truth about the Father of us all.
In the weekly presence of these new friends, God's opening my eyes—and my heart—to the needy right in my neighborhood. And every time I smile or thank or drink coffee with one of these souls, I catch the faintest hint of God looking back at me (Matthew 25:40). I know in even these small acts, I'm learning to love him better too.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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