My name is Sammy. I’m 24 years old, and I live far away from most of you. I don’t have a car, a passport, or a Judeo-Christian cultural background. I do, however, have a story.
I remember the first time I saw Mr. Robert and his wife Sarah. As usual, I was hawking my father’s special tea from a small metal cart containing a small brazier of live coals, simmering water, and an enormous bag of aromatic leaves for the beverages I sold. The American missionaries stood in the market surrounded by my people, an island of khaki and plaid in a sea of solid-colored shawls and scarves. Bright pinks and oranges and lavenders flowed around them without interruption as they purchased spices and onions and things for which they had no English name.
Americans, as a rule, do not drink from anything that lacks a sealed cap, so Sarah’s request for two cups surprised me. Her spoken language was serviceable, but not excellent. She paid in local currency and offered me the most curious blessing: that the god would illuminate my path and open my mind.
Ms. Sarah bought many cups of tea from me in the market, always punctuating her purchases with a strangely worded something. Her statements struck me as an amalgam of an Eastern proverb and a hopeful wish. I never asked what she meant; these things are to be accepted as gracious gifts from others regardless of their lack of clarity. Besides, I marketed in tea not philosophy.
Mr. Robert initiated our first discussion. Conversation with men flowed with greater ease than with women, especially an American. Robert and I debated sports at first – soccer. In the coming months, we moved on to banter about spiciness of cuisine. He staunchly supported, much to my surprise, the hottest chilies and their derived sauces. My family moved here from the northern hills two generations ago, and as such we obviously use such things with greater trepidation.
Mr. Robert and Ms. Sarah met my family. They invited me to their home. They showed me their ceiling fans and bookshelves. Mr. Robert walked with me as I sold tea, meeting my friends and neighbors and enemies alike.
I watched them shower grace on everyone. They forgave without rancor. They welcomed everyone without outward reservation. They extended peace to everyone. For all my culture’s talk about inner peace and outward pacifism, Mr. Robert and Ms. Sarah embodied those characteristics more than anyone I knew.
We often fatten our lives on the mundaneness of daily living. We absorb attitudes and words and events without thought, without realizing the degree to which these things inform and flesh out who we are. At other times, though, single moments arise and we know with all certainty that we have encountered a hinge in life – a fulcrum on which our futures swing gently until we decide to go this way or that.
The day I asked Mr. Robert what made them different was my hinge.
He said many things I did not understand yet which resonated within me on levels I did not realize existed outside of poetry and philosophy. Before I left that day, Mr. Robert gave me a small book, a new testimony of some kind about his god.
And so I read. Day and night, I read. I did not understand, nor did I commit to anything. Ms. Sarah continued with her purchase of tea and bizarre blessings, and still I read. I read and read. I read because I knew that soon another hinge would present itself; I needed to know what to do when that moment came, but I lacked the understanding of what my choices would be.
I was reading the day my father caught me, the day he snapped a broom handle in half, the day he beat me as one beats a mule who has tipped his load once too often. Oh, how he beat me.
And so here I stand in the street, bruised and bleeding, looking at the flowered-covered walls of Mr. Robert’s front gate. People pass and stare at the clothe-torn, heart-broken tea vendor who sniffles and shuffles without going anywhere. With the gods or God as my witness, I know not what to do. I want to bang on the gate and scream at the house and ask why they gave me this book without warning me more thoroughly that this might happen, that my father and uncles would react in this way as my mother cried in corner about betrayal and shame while I tried to explain that I was only searching for the truth and peace that had eluded me and my family and my friends and my enemies and my entire world.
I want to ask Mr. Robert why he taught me without protecting me or at least without truly convincing me that such protection was needed. I have no experience with this thing that they do, this Way that they live and act; despite Mr. Robert’s words, I never realized my father – my supposedly freethinking, philosophizing-over-tea-with-old-men, truth-loving father would do this. Did Mr. Robert? Did he know this would happen here in this place, this world that is nothing like his? I don’t know if he was prescient enough to predict my father.
Is this why I have heard of but never met others in my city who follow Mr. Robert’s Way? Does he shelter them from whatever storms he foresees? I suppose that once he led them to their own personal hinge-moments he felt responsible for them. They were his sheep and goats, sheltered from raging fathers and splintered broom-handles.
And me? What duty did Mr. Robert have to protect me? None, I suppose. After all, I am still an unsheared, woolly mountain ram, untamed and untaught. I’ve not yet entered the pen for feeding and protection. I had my chances, I guess.
I read of a man, Nicodemus, who sought to understand this Jesus. He feared reprisal or something and so approached the Jesus by night. Would others have beaten him just for asking? Only for being curious? This man Jesus said something about his followers being repaid for all they lost because of their faith. What of my loss? I don’t even have faith yet and I’ve already lost blood and blood-kin.
Should I be angry with Mr. Robert? Did he owe me warnings and protection? I don’t know. Any good teacher must protect his students, but I am not sure if I was a student just yet. My hinge is still swinging and squeaking, and I’ve not yet decided whether to open the door or close it. I suppose I thought there would be no repercussions so long as I did not commit.
I was wrong.
In much of the world, there’s a price to pay for being a Christian, a heavy price that takes an emotional, spiritual, and physical toll. Here in North America, it is easy to forget such things. However, even more casually set aside is the notion that there are repercussions simply for asking the wrong kind of questions, queries that predate salvation by weeks and months. There are a million Sammys out there trying to decide if it is worth the risk. Alongside them are a million Mr Roberts desperately trying to decide whether Sammy is seeking to know Christ or to persecute Him.