Reflection: Do we truly have what it takes for some relationships?

Kenneth Thompson is pastor of Friendship Community Church (Bronx, N.Y.) and serves on the Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA, the Executive Board of African American Mennonite Association, and the Intercultural Relations Reference Council of Mennonite Church USA.

By Kenneth L. Thompson
Pastor, Friendship Community Church, Bronx, N.Y.

I learned recently that promoting a missional identity and presence in our community involves accepting vulnerability in cultivating relationships with people in the community. I wonder, “Are we, in Christ’s name, still willing to ‘enter into’ another’s challenges with a heart of compassion and a view toward discipleship” when it is neither comfortable nor convenient for us?

At a recent fellowship dinner, two families visited with us to share their stories. Over the course of the afternoon, one of our members needed to recharge his cell phone. A boy from one of the visiting families suggested using an outlet he had seen in the kitchen while helping set the table.

After dinner was finished and our guests had left, our church member went to retrieve his phone to check for messages. Days earlier his sister had suffered a stroke, so he needed to stay in touch with family. But when he entered the kitchen, only the phone charger was left connected to the outlet. His phone was missing.

We searched frantically, but the phone was gone. Our church member, speaking in a calm voice, released the care of it to God, refused to worry about it, and went home quietly. As he was leaving, his 5-year-old son said that the boy who had suggested charging the phone in the kitchen had gone back into the kitchen while people were talking and had taken interest in the phone. He hadn’t seen the boy take it, but he had seen him alone there.

I called the number to the missing cell phone several times. After about the 12th attempt, a little voice with a big attitude answered, saying, “Don’t call this phone no more!” and hung up. I relayed what had happened to Laura Allen, a friend who had stopped by the church to visit. She then called the number and sternly demanded that the phone be returned. The boy answered “No!” and said we couldn’t do anything to get it back. We explained why it was important to have the phone returned promptly. After a pause, we were given an address. We took a cab there only to find that the address was false and the fare was wasted.

I admit that anger and exasperation began to rise up. It’s one thing not to know what to pray for someone, and quite another to be in a mood when you don’t feel like praying; all you want in that moment is to be done with the day after you’ve told that person what a problem he has been for you. So, we called again. This time I somehow remembered a conversation at the dinner that had identified the boy as being directly related to someone my father, the late Bishop Billie L. Thompson, had baptized years ago. I told the boy that I could find someone who could tell us where he was, and that we could come with the police if necessary to arbitrate surrender of the stolen phone.

He relented and gave us a correct address this time. By now the hour was late. We were tired after a full day and felt resentment over being misled and toyed with. Yet with the correct address we traveled 40 minutes to his home to retrieve the phone.

As we approached the door, I still had enough presence of mind to say a prayer for the peace of God to rule and reign over what might be waiting on the other side of that door; to pray—as Jesus taught us in Matthew 5—for people who don’t relate to us well or fairly. The boy answered the door. He made no eye contact. When asked if his mother was home, he simply shrugged his shoulders, put candy in his mouth and walked away, leaving us to enter on our own and explain to the woman present—who I thought was his grandmother—why we were there.

After renewing our acquaintance and recalling her joy over my father’s ministry, we talked about the missing phone. She sat on her walker, listening with shock and dismay, and then angrily called the boy into the room. He came into the room with the phone, again avoiding eye contact, and limply handed it to me. I stood still, watching, as he was told how wrong what he had done was, how he didn’t look sorry and that he needed the rod of correction so he would learn to feel the consequences of his actions.

We learned that the lady in the walker was actually the boy’s mother and that he was only 10 years old. She had him late in life, survived a stroke and was now alone. She said she had indulged him with whatever he wanted to compensate for her not being able to keep up with him as well as the younger mothers of his peers did. He was extremely bored and lonely, and was only allowed out of the house to go to school, take out the trash and walk the little dog they had in that small apartment. His only outlets were the TV, computer, electronic games and two cell phones his mother had bought for him.

My earlier righteous indignation and exasperation in the flesh were now overcome by the compassion and empathy of Christ’s spirit. In the midst of what was clearly an uncomfortable and inconvenient scene, the love of God in Christ Jesus overcame. Our minds were lifted above what we had gone through that day and instead rested on what this family must be going through day by day. How and where could we have a relationship to help introduce the grace, mercy and peace of God into these dear lives in the context of a healing community? What could this look like for all involved so that it would be mutually enriching and sustainable?

His mother took his cell phones, banned him from the computer, and said he could watch only one hour of TV for two weeks as punishment. I called for a pause to pray. We all joined hands in a circle and prayed a prayer of thanks for meeting this family. We asked for forgiveness for both the theft of the phone and for all our feelings surrounding the incident, and for the grace of God to help bring about true reconciliation. The boy slipped away from the prayer circle and came back into the room with money in hand to show his contrite heart. When we saw the money he offered, we wondered where he had gotten it, and his mother said, “I know you didn’t just go in my room and in my purse, did you?!” He dropped his head and looked away. To his amazement, instead of anger we all burst out in laughter.

After embracing them and extending sincere forgiveness, we left their home with the recovered phone, a promise and a plea: a promise to bring them into fellowship, and a plea to overcome any remaining shame about the matter by coming to visit regularly so that we could know each other better and see the grace of God take shape in this relationship in a new way.

Sadly, the mother feels her embarrassment is too much to overcome and has not returned with her son. She offers that she is still trying her best to raise him, and that he is doing better, but she won’t be returning after all. To date she hasn’t returned any calls.

Since that experience and the lessons and opportunities for growth therein, I find myself in my quiet times wondering, “Do we, as the body of Christ, really have what it takes to have real relationships and embrace opportunities for growth and maturity even when patience is tried and love is tested? Can we follow through? And how do we follow up on it where there’s been discomfort, inconvenience, and disappointment?”

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Note: This piece is appearing in conjunction with On the Way, Mennonite Church USA’s online newsletter; the current issue on the churchwide priority of stewardship focuses on the stewardship of relationships. (See www.mennoniteusa.org/on-the-way)