As he climbed into my car, I was struck by the shabbiness of his clothing, the dirt on his face, and the smell from his body.
His name was Ralph. He said he needed a ride to Muncie, where his family use to live. He didn’t know if they were still there but he thought he might try to find them. I knew I could not drive all the way to Muncie; I was on my way to the little country church for a carry-in dinner and a program on missions. And then I had an idea.
I explained where I was going and invited him along. “Ralph, if you come with me, you can have all you want to eat.” He slowly shook his head, looking down at his tattered jacket and thread-bare jeans.
“If you want to come eat with us, you would only have to stay for the program and then I can drive you all the way to Muncie.” Ralph thought about this for a while. In a low, hoarse whisper, he said, “Alright. I guess that will be okay.”
As we turned on the country road that led to the Union Chapel United Methodist Church, Ralph took off his tobogan and straightened his thin hair. He straightened his scarf. He picked the dirt from under his fingernails. He zipped his jacket and prepared himself for dinner in the house of the Lord, a place at God’s Table.
As we entered the fellowship hall, several of the men poked me in the side and asked who my “friend” was. I explained that, while not in the habit of picking up hikers, I had collected Ralph on the way to church and couldn’t think of a better place to take him on a cold October night. It was obvious these men didn’t agreed.
I led Ralph to the tables, stacked high with fried chicken, dumplings, cakes & pies. There was lemonade and ice tea in tall cups, ice floating thick and deep. At the end of one table stood a large urn of dark, rich coffee. Its aroma filled the room and Ralph was drawn to it. With a plate filled to over-flowing, he poured a styrophome cup full and gathered several packets of sugar.
The members of the congregation stared as he made his way to a table and the senior pastor made his way to Ralph. I watched from a distance as he leaned close and spoke quietly with Ralph. A few minutes later he was leaning close to me and not speaking as quietly.
“I don’t know where you found him, but he’s your responsibility for the rest of the night. He’s playing with about 26 of the necessary 52 cards.” His words were funny but his tone was not. There was no humor in his voice and none in his glare. I nodded and looked over at Ralph sitting by himself.
As people finished their dinner, we began to gather in the sanctuary for the program on Missions. We were there to talk about reaching the lost in some far off country. Ralph and I sat together in the back row. He listened politely. He never said a word. Even as we closed with the hymn, “Amazing Grace”, Ralph stood but did not sing.
At the end of the evening we made our way out the church door and into the dark parking lot. I couldn’t help but notice that no one said goodbye to Ralph; not even the pastor. No one shook his hand. No one offered a prayer, a dollar, or a plate of left over food. He walked to the car with nothing in his hand but his winter hat.
We climbed into the car and made our way into Muncie. There was not a sound. We drove in complete silence. When we entered the city limits I asked where he wanted me to take him and he said that this was good enough. I found a place to pull over and before he exited, I offered him my hand. He looked at it for a moment and wiped his on his dirty pants and took my palm.
“Ralph,” I said slowly and deliberately, looking him in the eye, “thanks for coming with me. I hope you had plenty to eat.” He only nodded.
“Good luck finding your family.” He nodded again, let go of my hand, and stepped out of the car. The door shut softly and I watched as he adjusted his jacket and scarf. He turned to town and started walking.
That was twenty years ago and to this day, whenever I see someone with a sign that reports that they will “WORK FOR FOOD,” I think of Ralph. And I wonder what ever happened to my “friend”. I wonder where he went when he left my car. I wonder if the food he ate warmed his empty stomach because I know the reception he received left him cold.