As a young clergyman, I was paid a stipend of $1,200 a month, no insurance or pension, all the farm eggs and deer meat I could eat, and frequent kind invitations to dinner in the homes of my parishioners.
As the congregation grew and there was talk of raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for land and a building, I found that my pride was deeply hurt. It occurred to me that the “value” placed on my ministry was insulting, at least in financial terms. I became very resentful.
My resentfulness manifested in anger at those who asked me for financial assistance — thinking many of those coming to me were financially better off than I was, and getting government help. One family in particular lived in my complex and came daily to my apartment to ask for money or food if I didn’t have money. I assumed, because of the filth they lived in, they were mentally challenged. Their water was always being turned off, so they seldom took baths.
Once while entertaining a group from the parish, the young daughter of the family (about 14 years old) came to my door to ask for help. I was mortified at the way she looked. I blew up, and told her to leave, and that I did not want to see her or anyone in her family again. When I returned to my guests, all but one congratulated me on how I handled the situation – I felt justified… As it happened, the family was evicted within the week.
Almost seven years later, as I was going through the check-out lane of an upscale grocery, I could not take my eyes off of the stunning young woman who was the cashier. As I paid and was getting ready to leave, she spoke. “Father Windsor, I don’t believe you remember me?” I answered, “Beloved, for the life of me, I know I should know who you are, but I just am not able to place you, I can’t imagine forgetting a young lady so beautiful…” She went on, “We were once neighbors, but you never wanted to see me, or my family again, I hope you are not too upset that I spoke…” I knew immediately who she was, the 14 year old I sent away.
The woman who did not congratulate me on being so unkind to the young girl at my door years before, left my gathering to go out and talk with her. She befriended her, stayed in touch with her, and when her parents were killed in a car accident took her in for a few weeks, until she was adopted by an aunt. This young woman attended a local, and prestigious college. Soon she would be married. I apologized for being so unkind. She had the grace to say, “Fr. Van, my family misused you, and you were under a lot of stress yourself. It is OK, if you need it you have my forgiveness, you have it, but also you must accept my thanks for having such nice parishioners, many of whom have helped transform me.”
The parishioner who helped the young girl, laughed when I confronted her about it all, and the fact she kept it from me. Not unkindly, she said, “Van, you talk so much about the ‘beauty of holiness’ in us all, by the virtue of God’s image, yet you only notice the finished product… I don’t mind getting my hands dirty…”
Well I hope that I now see the beauty of holiness in each person, and I hope and pray I am willing to get my hands dirty. More importantly, I pray I am not such an arrogant prig that I never again overlook the opportunity to be an instrument of Christ.
The Rev. Walter Van Zandt Windsor is rector at Trinity Episcopal Church.
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