In Romans 12:13 Paul exhorts us to be ready to help when God's people are in need. "Always be eager to practice hospitality," he writes.
This Scripture came alive for me one evening when my next-door neighbor *Ramona had met me in the foyer of her house as I pushed open the half-ajar front door, my own four-year-old son in tow. Upstairs I could hear her boys sobbing.
"Thanks for coming, Renee," Ramona cried. "Susan drove home drunk. I can't take it anymore!"
"Why you call her?" From the living room, Susan, Ramona's partner, slurred as quietly as she could. The leather cushions gave as she stumbled down onto the couch.
"I shouted at her," Ramona continued. "I can't take it anymore, and I scared the boys."
"What do you want me to do?" I asked.
Any thoughts of this being an easily solved emergency had begun to fizzle.
"Could you stay with them for a bit?"
My son and I walked slowly up the stairs while Ramona retreated to the living room to tend to Susan. In the boys' bedroom, seven-year-old Cam's ribs heaved while he rocked back and forth, tears pouring out. He could barely look me in the eye. His wails punctured his older brother Neil's flow of words: "She drove home drunk, Renee," Neil said. "She could have killed somebody. We're scared." His restless fingers arranged and re-arranged his lineup of figurines and spun his planet mobile as he shot me sideways glances.
I had no idea what to say or do. My mind was still on the work I hadn't yet finished and the supper dishes I had to clean up. Plus, my son needed to start his bedtime routine. I didn't have time for this.
My son counts Neil and Cam (Susan's children) as his brothers. And while I'd noticed some changes in Neil and Cam since the school year had begun–a hardness in their body language; a sudden shyness with me; a lost look at times in their eyes; loud fights we could hear in our house; fewer play dates with my son–I'd just chalked it up to pre-tween growing pains and back-to-school schedules. In fact, it was more. Susan and Ramona's domestic partnership had made the boys prime targets for schoolyard bullies. The bullying had been consistent for more than a year. Cam had responded by coating his heart with an impenetrable layer of shellac. He'd chosen after-school activities that would make him the strongest possible seven-year-old, and he kept his distance from the neighbors. Including us. Neil had begun to shade the truth and push boundaries.
"Ramona shouted at mom," Cam sobbed. "Ramona says she doesn't want a relationship with mom if she's drunk all the time."
I uttered a quick prayer and gently scooted into the room. I wiggled into a space on the side of Cam's pine bed, keeping that careful distance between us. My son stooped down and began to move Neil's figurines around. Neil pulled out another box of toys and began to lay them out on the hardwood floor. The soft clunk and clatter of toys being moved around wrapped us in a blanket of privacy, shielding us from the adult drama playing out below us. And as that privacy fell, I looked and listened. "Cam, may I give you a hug?" I finally asked. We all waited.
With a clutch, he leaned into my side. "Come here," I said softly. And with that he launched himself, he who didn't like to be touched, into my lap, laid his head on my chest and bawled. I opened my mouth to soothe. What tumbled out were words I had never imagined saying to two distraught boys: "I know how scary it is when your mom drives home drunk. My daddy used to do that. I could never go to sleep until I'd heard the front gate open and the car engine idle then shut off. I'd hear the car door close." Cam gulped and went still. Neil looked up.
"How could he be so selfish?" I used to wonder. "But, I'd wait up for him. He never took house keys so Mummy used to lock the doors so he couldn't come in. I'd quietly open the door and creep out in my jammies to find him sitting on the front steps, still as a statue with his head in his hands. Sometimes he wouldn't open his eyes no matter how many times I pushed him. I'd go back to bed then. I was able to sleep."
The boys digested my story. Cam's gulps slowed down.
"Ramona yelled at her," Neil said again.
"Well, she's pretty upset too," I offered. "All I know is, she loves you two more than you'll ever know."
We remained in that upper room for more than an hour with Cam on my lap and Neil and my son staging battles with the figurines. My son's bedtime hour came and went and still we waited, waited for the final gulps to end, for Cam to push himself off my lap, for Neil's bony shoulders to relax. Finally Ramona came in. "Thanks, Renee," she mouthed at me. Cam slid off my lap, dug out some toys, and began to play as Ramona filled me in: Susan loved her drink too much, and Alcoholics Anonymous and therapy too little. Tonight's episode had been the final straw.
I rose up. I had to put my son to bed. "It'll be okay," I said to the room. "Good night, guys."
When my son and I went downstairs, Susan came out of the living room.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Why she call you?," she said.
Drink, tears, and remorse had thickened her Spanish accent.
"It'll be okay," I whispered as we left to take the 40 steps back to our house.
Later that night, as I shuffled quietly from my son's room, wondering if Neil and Cam were able to sleep, it hit me. I'd received an amazing gift–the gift of comfort and connection, the gift of presence–in the tears of a seven-year-old. Cam and I had shared a moment. His mother was an alcoholic, and nothing could change the fact that we–the church-going Christian neighbors next door–now knew.
But here's the thing. In his sobs I had heard my own howls of rage and fear and terrible hollow love. My father was an alcoholic.
As Cam had allowed me to hold him still, in some strange way, he was holding me, allowing me to offer him and his brother an unexpected connection–that I, their playmate's mom, knew how mothers and fathers could be people capable of abandoning us, over and over, when we least expected it, on those nights when all we wanted was a bedtime story and a reminder of whose we were and would always be. In that upper room, I'd experienced God holding me even as I had held Cam.
Yes. Be eager to practice hospitality—even if it means stepping through the half-opened front door of your neighbor's house when they call you in a panic.
Renee is the director of communications for Canadian Baptist Women of Ontario and Quebec. She's a regular contributor to Today's Christian Woman and blogs on change, big and small, at reneejames.org. *Please note: names have been changed to protect privacy.