The middle-eastern stranger walked into the Baptist church located in one of the rougher parts of the city. Even by its tough standards, the man appeared poor, ragged, and beyond hope. His stained, dirty fatigue jacket had threadbare holes beginning to form where it had been slept in. A gray hoodie pullover lay hidden beneath the battered jacket, another layer to protect the lost and homeless against the cold cruel night of the mid-Atlantic. The hoodie itself partially hid the man’s face from view.
The old deacon saw all he needed to see. The man’s matted long hair stuck out from beyond the hoodie. It’s greasy, brown strands lay against the hood and the man’s neck. Disgusting, thought the deacon to himself. As if he heard the deacon’s thoughts, the stranger looked from the back of the church directly at the church official. The stranger’s dull, brown eyes appeared sad. The deacon gently elbowed his friend as they stood at the front of the church preparing to accept the offering.
The middle-aged man whispered, “John, look back there at what just walked in. I told you we needed to lock the doors to keep out the homeless.”
“Shhh,” said John, and then he whispered back, “Please Frank, it’s Christmas Eve.”
“Humph,” responded Frank. “I’m putting an end to this now. There are homeless shelters at the end of the block after all.”
Frank handed John his offering plate and quietly walked down the aisle as the church continued to pray for the offering and those in need. Frank walked up, pointed at the stranger and motioned with his finger for him to follow. The two walked out of the front entrance of the church together. Even though Frank was three feet ahead, the homeless man’s body odor made Frank gag.
Once beyond the door, Frank spun around and faced the stranger, “Look, buddy, you can’t just come crawling in and interrupt our service. If you want to get warm, head on down the street. They got coffee, food, and cots. They even have showers, and taking one might do you some good.”
Frank got a better look at the bedraggled stranger. His face seemed to fit a man in his thirties, but the sadness in his features caused him to look far older. His pants were marked with mud stains and stains that Frank did not want to imagine the source of. The lost man stuck out his hand. His fingernails were cracked, long, and black underneath.
The grimy man finally spoke, “Hi, my name is Joshua.”
Frank looked at Joshua’s hand for a few seconds and finally stuck out his own and shuddered as their hands met. Joshua’s hand was warm and calloused. Frank turned Joshua’s hand slightly back and forth to look for needle marks. He noticed a large scar on the back and front of Joshua’s hand.
Frank released his grip, “How’d you get that scar.”
Joshua smiled for the first time, and Frank swore his appearance got younger. “Oh, that happened a long time ago. I got it helping out my father.”
Frank nodded and asked, “So, you’re used to working hard?”
Joshua laughed slightly and gave Frank a friendly smack on the shoulder. “If you only knew half of what I’ve had to do. Hard work is a welcomed break.”
Frank shook his head confused, and then asked, “I don’t get it. Why were you in the church to get warm? Why are you homeless? Somebody like you should be doing much better.”
Joshua smiled and nodded. A light seemed to flash for a moment behind his dull, brown eyes. He reached out and took Frank’s hands in his. Frank wanted to pull back in disgust, but the warmth of Joshua’s hands and the peace that suddenly fell over him chased away all thoughts of the stranger’s sullied appearance. “I didn’t come to church to get warm,” said Joshua. “I came to worship my father.”
Frank wanted to protest. He wanted to call Joshua a liar, but something inside was stopping him from saying a word.
Joshua continued, “Frank, I see what you’ve been doing for me here. I know that people can be thankless and cruel. I know what it feels like to be used just to get a free meal, but you are doing my work. The shelter up the road is full of men you have helped. Did you know they are planning to come here after the service with a gift for you?”
Tears begin to flow down Frank’s cheeks. He slowly moved his head side to side as he spoke, “I didn’t. How do you know all of this? Who are you?”
A smile spread across the dirty man’s face, “Oh, Frank. You know who I am.”
Frank looked into Joshua’s eyes, and fear struck his heart. His knees began to buckle and Joshua slid himself underneath Frank’s shoulder to hold him up.
Joshua chuckled and walked Frank over so he could sit on a bench in front of the church. “Easy, Frank. We don’t want to make a scene. Just rest here a moment. I came to tell you not to become jaded. Keep doing the work you have been created for. Through you, many of the outcast of this world will come to know me and their lives will be changed. In turn, they will reach many men and women. Don’t lose your faith in me.”
Frank put his head in his hands and quietly wept for a moment. He took a deep breath, wiped his eyes and looked up. Joshua was gone. Frank looked down at the dirty street, took a deep breath, looked towards heaven with a smile and said, “Thank you.” As Frank walked back into the church he joined the chorus of men, women, and children singing “Mary did you know?” He joined his friend John near the rear of the church and took back his offering plate with a broad smile upon his face.
George looked out over the city skyline. His high-rise condominium offered him a view of the city’s steel and concrete canyon. In the blackness of Christmas Eve the city’s lights were especially festive, and yet George felt empty. He hated the black tux he was wearing. His father always avoided such stuffy events. George’s eyes misted at the thought of his deceased father.
Dad, you died way too soon, thought George. He turned and looked inside his condominium. He did not know half the guests he saw milling about. Plus ones for a room full of people who were there just to be seen. George turned back and talked to the cold night air, “It’s not lonely at the top, it’s desolate.” George looked up towards heaven, “Dad, I would give all of this away if it meant you could’ve lived longer. Thank you for giving me everything you did, but what I really wanted all these years was time with you. We could have lived on less.”
George heard the sliding glass door open. A middle-eastern stranger he had not been introduced to walked through the opening and closed the door behind him. His black tuxedo was tailored and silk. It seemed to almost glow against the pail city lights and moon. His black beard was trimmed perfectly, and his hair, although down to his shoulders was freshly styled and washed. George knew he needed to put on a welcoming face. He never knew when a stranger could turn into a business ally or enemy.
George stuck out his hand, “Hi there, George McGovern, but you can call me George. I don’t believe we’ve met yet.”
The stranger nodded and took George’s hand. In contrast to the vise grip and limp handshakes of the evening, the new party goer’s handshake felt warm and welcoming.
“I’m Joshua,” said the stranger.
“Joshua, a pleasure. Who did you come with?” asked George.
Joshua leaned up against the railing and the sliding glass door opened. A caterer walked on to the balcony and offered a tray of red wine. Both men took a glass. Joshua took his time sipping his drink. His brown eyes seemed locked on George as George took a sip from his own glass.
Joshua removed the wine glass from his lips and spoke. “I’m afraid this is a bit embarrassing.”
George raised his eyebrow and interjected, “Oh really? Why? Did you crash my party?”
Joshua shrugged, “Perhaps, although you invited me.”
Both men placed their glasses down on the small table just behind him. George faced Joshua and spoke, “I invited you? I’m not sure how that can be. I don’t even know you.”
Joshua nodded, “That’s true. Although, you want to know more about me. I saw you crying in the cemetery as you spoke to your dead father over his grave. Do you remember when he used to take you to church as a child?”
George’s hand shook slightly as he raised it and rubbed his chin. “How do you know these things? Are you some sort of private investigator?”
Joshua shook his head and smiled. “Look into my eyes, George. Tell me, what do you see?”
George looked into the kind brown eyes of the middle eastern man. There was something familiar about them. He had never seen them before, but George could recall Joshua being there with him as he prayed in the church as a child. They were there when his mother had passed. Somehow, Joshua had always been with him.
George’s voice spoke with a slight quiver, ”Are you, Him?”
Joshua smiled and calmly reached down for his glass and took a sip of wine.
George continued, “I don’t understand. I quit going to church after mom died. I just couldn’t bring myself to believe in you anymore after she left this earth.”
Joshua put down his glass, “Everyone passes eventually, George.”
George shrugged, “I know. I don’t know why I never returned to my faith.”
George startled as Joshua suddenly wrapped his arms around George in a hug. Peace filled George’s soul and the balcony felt as though it was bathed in light, even though the city lights were still shining brightly against the night sky. Joshua released George.
“It’s okay, you’re forgiven,” said Joshua. “That’s why I’m here. You need to remember you are forgiven of all your mistakes. I have important work for you to do.”
George’s forehead crinkled, “You want me to quit the company and go into ministry?”
Joshua let a short laugh pass from his lips and George suppressed the urge to giggle along. “No,” Joshua said. “This company is your ministry. All your wealth and power, use it for the widow and orphan.”Joshua pointed below towards a dark gap in the city’s light show. “Down there, the people need your help. There is a Baptist church, a men’s shelter, and family shelter. I want you to go to the church and ask for a man named Frank. They are in need of financial help, and on occasion a helping hand.”
George nodded, and then pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. “What about these freeloaders? Surely, they don’t need anything.”
Joshua gently turned George to face the glass wall and his Christmas party guests within his condominium. “What do you see?”
George sighed and took a look. His executive assistant, Vanessa and her husband Lewis were chatting, but neither seemed to be paying attention to each other. From across the room, David from accounting was leering at Vanessa who was exchanging glances with him, both would occasionally allow their lips to slightly curl up with each flirting gaze.
George gasped, “Vanessa and David are having an affair?”
Joshua nodded, “Yes. She and her husband have fallen on hard times since he lost his job. David has been lonely since his wife’s untimely death. Unfortunately, they have taken solace in each other.”
“What can I do?” asked George.
Joshua shrugged and said, “I’ve given you a large company and powerful friends. Help Lewis get back on his feet, and spend some time with David. You both have lost people you love. You can empathize with his pain and perhaps make a trusted friend.”
George nodded and continued looking around the room. Some guests were laughing as others stood around with bland or sad looks in their eyes. George began to realize how large the task was before him. He turned to Joshua, but Joshua was gone.
George looked heavenward, “You’re asking more than I think I can handle.”
Inside his heart, George heard the response, “We can do this together.”
A tear gently rolled down George’s cheek. He wiped it away and walked back inside. Making a beeline for David, George stepped in front of David’s view of Vanessa, He shook David’s hand gently and spoke, “I’m sorry I haven’t had time to say hello before now. I believe we have something in common. We have both lost our families. I don’t know about you, but I could use a friend to get together with, especially during the holidays. Are you up for dinner and a few rounds of pool this week?”
David stammered, and then said, “Yes, that sounds great.”
“Terrific,” responded George enthusiastically. Then he turned to his guest and grabbed a glass of wine from a nearby tray sitting on an end table, and raised it.
George’s smiled lit up the room, and he said, “Merry Christmas to all!”
“Merry Christmas,” all replied in unison.