Coffee and a Hug?
By Maria Fontaine
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Tony Campolo, popular Christian author, speaker, and sociologist, told of an encounter he had as he was walking in downtown Philadelphia:
“I noticed a bum walking toward me. He was covered with dirt and soot from head to toe. There was filthy stuff caked on his skin. But the most noticeable thing about him was his beard. It hung down almost to his waist and there was rotted food stuck in it. The man was holding a cup of McDonald’s coffee, and the lip of the cup was already smudged from his dirty mouth. As he staggered toward me, he seemed to be staring into his cup of coffee.
“Then, suddenly, he looked up and he yelled, ‘Hey, mister! Ya want some of my coffee?’
“I have to admit that I really didn’t. But I knew that the right thing to do was to accept his generosity, and so I said, ‘I’ll take a sip.’
“As I handed the cup back to him I said, ‘You’re getting pretty generous, aren’t you, giving away your coffee? What’s gotten into you today that’s made you so generous?’
“The old derelict looked straight into my eyes and said, ‘Well, the coffee was especially delicious today, and I figure if God gives you something good, you ought to share it with people!’
“I thought to myself, Oh, man. He has really set me up. This is going to cost me five dollars. I asked him, ‘I suppose there’s something I can do for you in return, isn’t there?’
“The bum answered, ‘Yeah! You can give me a hug!’ (To tell the truth, I was hoping for the five dollars.)
“He put his arms around me and I put my arms around him. Then suddenly I realized something. He wasn’t going to let me go! People were passing us on the sidewalk. They were staring at me. There I was, dressed in establishment garb, hugging this dirty, filthy bum! I was embarrassed. I didn’t know what to do.
“Then, little by little, my embarrassment changed to awe and reverence. I heard a voice echoing down the corridors of time saying, ‘I was hungry; did you feed Me? I was naked; did you clothe Me? I was sick; did you care for Me? I was the bum you met on Chestnut Street; did you hug Me? For if you did it to the least of these, you did it unto Me.’”1
Reflecting on this story, I asked myself, “Would I have that much love?”
Yes, I could give someone a tract, I could give someone money, I could say a few words of encouragement. But what if the situation, whatever it may be, calls on me to give more than I typically would, more than I’m used to giving?
It also got me thinking about the sacrifices that active Christians have made for years, and continue to make, to give God’s love to others.
As I meditated further on this story, it dawned on me that the key is: If God asks something of us, He will give us the grace to do it with all our hearts. When we share sincere and unfeigned love and care for others, whether in an old folks’ home, a prison, an orphanage, a hovel in the slums, or just out on the streets, it can be a sacrifice if we see it in terms of the physical. However, when we focus on the spiritual and the eternal impact that the Lord’s unconditional love has, as it pours through us to those in need, we find ourselves compelled by His Spirit to be whatever reflection of Him He knows is needed. Even the “unpleasant” in the physical becomes a thing of beauty as we become a link in the Lord’s connection to those in desperate need of a “hug” from their Savior.
How much love do I have? Hardly any compared to that of Jesus, I’m positive! I think that the Lord understands our frame and what we have the love and faith for. He may stretch us beyond what we are comfortable with, but He also knows how much we’re capable of. If the Lord specifically puts us in an uncomfortable situation and makes it clear to us what we should do, then He’ll give us the love and the grace to follow Him.
It’s not always such an unusual scenario as in this story. There are some things that are just plain common courtesy. I made the mistake once of not accepting an offer of some chips from a person’s potato chip bag—when it was a gesture of kindness on their part to offer it to me. I felt bad afterwards and promised myself that I would try to accept things that were offered whether I wanted it or not or whether I rarely ate such a food. Would I eat from somebody’s plate or drink from somebody’s cup? Probably not normally. But if the Lord put it on my heart that it was very important, then I hope I would.
Would I give a beggar a sincere hug? I would hope so, if the Lord indicated it was what He wanted me to do. I realize that what is a sacrifice for one person may not be a sacrifice for someone else. It may be easier for one person to give what little money they have to help another than it would be to give them a hug. For someone else, the hug might be easier. Or, a person might give sacrificially of their very limited time to sit and talk with a person more easily than they would give of their limited funds.
Can we ask the Lord to give us enough love so that when we’re faced with a situation, no matter what it is, we will do our best to respond to it as Jesus would? However big or small the sacrifice, we can be Jesus for someone not only through our spiritual ministration, but also by our physical actions, recognizing that it is Jesus we’re doing it to. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”2
Originally published March 2012. Republished on Anchor July 2016.
Read by Debra Lee.