Meeting Jesus Among the Least of These

This blog post is from Dan Geoffrion (pictured center), former Hope for LA Team Leader at PATH West LA.

PATH West LA

God loves the poor and commands his followers to love them. In my life, I’ve often found it too easy to not have meaningful connections with anyone who Jesus may describe as the least of these. As I’ve sought to know God better, I’ve wanted to know the people he loves in better ways and sought experiences such as living in inner city Detroit, working for different non-profits that focus on the poor, and most recently, serving homeless veterans at a local shelter called PATH West LA.

Once a month, our group cooks and serves burgers for a couple dozen veterans. Recently, I did the pre-meal shopping and the other volunteers gently taught me the difference between lettuce and cabbage. Every time I serve, I learn something new. The rest of the meal prep went well, we served the burgers, and then I sat down with a guy named “Bobby.”

A warrior, not a hero

Bobby is a vet from Afghanistan and Iraq. He won medals for bravery and completed a few tours. Most conversations I have with the vets revolve around the sporting event of the day or a favorite hobby or something about where they grew up, but Bobby was different.

He immediately wanted to talk about what war was like. He showed off his radio calls when they needed help and no one came. His face contorted in disgust as he asked how a country could give someone like him a bravery award when he and all his squad were cowards. They had killed men, women, and children in the heat of battle. The situations they faced under enemy fire and the things they had to do earned the squadron the nickname “the Unlovables.” He assured me they were warriors, but they weren’t heroes.

The Unlovables

More than just talking about war, Bobby wanted to talk about theology. He wanted to know what I thought about bad men and people that were unlovable. He knows more Bible verses than I do and brought up all the times that God commanded the Israelites to clear the land. Why did God choose some men to be bad and other people to be good?

It was an important moment for me because it made me realize that my beliefs so clearly changed the way I could respond to him. When he asked if people like him were unlovable, I could say that Jesus thought differently. Jesus loved them so much that he was willing to die for them.[1] (That response earned me a fist bump from Bobby.) I said that I don’t think anyone is all bad or all good and that everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.[2] I could also say that no matter what we’ve done in the past, God wants us to love others and reflect his love on a daily basis.[3] Today, we have a choice to do what is good. God can work in all of us.

The challenge of receiving love

Bobby used to live near his family and would bathe and help take care of his niece. The shame he felt from the war in part led him to drink and also made him want to separate himself from his extended family because he was now a “bad man.” The night before I cooked, his niece texted him for the first time in 15 years and she wanted to catch up and chat. Bobby was supposed to call her back right after our dinner.

Bobby was terrified and tears started streaming down his face. He wasn’t the same man that his niece may remember. War had changed him and he was worried about what he could say. I reassured him that his niece likely knew about his struggles and still wanted to talk to him and feel a sense of connection. Even though he hadn’t been there for her in the past, he could choose to be there for her tonight and going forward. We did a role play where he could practice coming up with questions and responses to ease his anxiety. At the end, I prayed with and for him.

As we speak hope into the lives of others by pointing them to God’s love, we understand how God loves us in deeper ways

As volunteers, we serve because we want to do something nice for people in a time of transition. More than that, we want to show the vets dignity and God’s love. Yet, service can be so much more than this one-sided transaction.

Bobby’s niece is, like God, inviting us to a deeper relationship. Our shame and fear keep us from wanting to engage. The deep grace we receive even when we feel bad or unlovable can be overwhelming and scary. Because Bobby was vulnerable, he gave me a chance to see on a practical level what God’s love is like for me. Serving at Path West LA has shown me how God dwells among the least of these and as I interact with the veterans, I find God among them.

[1] John 3:16

[2] Romans 3:23

[3] Inspired by Mark 12:30-31