Two-year-old Jonah was from one of Kentucky’s poorest counties.
During his prolonged stay in the hospital for meningitis and seizures, the staff noticed that the entire family of five was at the hospital all day, every day. They ate off the patient’s dietary tray, slept on the floor and bathed in the hospital room.
When the social worker suggested that it would be good to take the older kids home so they could attend school, she was shocked to learn that “home” was an old sedan parked in the hospital garage.
They had been living in their car for 18 months after the father had a heart attack and could no longer work.
“This is twenty-first century America! How could this happen?” With these words, our social worker moved quickly to find out what had happened and what could now be done.
Both parents had dropped out of school at age 16. Neither could read beyond a fourth-grade level. Only one of the three children had up-to-date immunizations.
None had had the HIB vaccine that would have prevented Jonah’s disastrous illness. They had not applied for assistance; the process seemed difficult and hopeless, if not humiliating, to them.
Luke 24:13-35 tells of two travelers to Emmaus who are joined by a stranger, the resurrected Jesus. He accompanied them and listened to their concerns and conversation. Finally, Cleopas and his friend ask the stranger to stay with them as evening was near.
When Jesus broke the bread, they recognized him, as he had broken bread with them so many times before. This was the risen Lord. They were warmed and comforted by his very presence.
Jonah’s family needed someone to walk alongside them. They needed help navigating what they perceived as a difficult, if not overwhelming, process of getting assistance. They are not alone.
For example, over the last decade, one-fourth of Medicaid-eligible children are not enrolled because parents are deterred by the complicated system or do not know about available benefits. Thousands of people of all ages are moved to despair prompting inaction as they face demoralizing circumstances.
Is it not the calling of the church to reach out in any way possible to get to know those in need of help?
Many elderly are without community. New immigrants need help through the legal and medical mazes. And, yes, even those that we call “undocumented,” or even “illegal,” need a caring presence.
As we share our bread, ourselves and our resources, we may find that we see in each other what Cleopas saw that day on the road to Emmaus – the living Jesus.
The promise of Scripture is that the Holy Spirit will come and “walk alongside” us. We can be the presence of Jesus to others by walking alongside them, especially during the most difficult moments of their lives.
It may be just a ride to the clinic or to a government office to do paperwork. Such may seem easy to us, but perhaps not for one who has been overwhelmed by life. In concrete and very real ways, we may be the very presence of Jesus to others.
Let us go, then, with words of hope: “Come, let me walk alongside you!”
Bill Holmes is an ordained Baptist (Cooperative Baptist Fellowship) pastor and part-time hospital chaplain. He retired from medicine after 34 years of practicing and teaching pediatrics and pediatric neurology. He is also a doctor of ministry student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. A version of this article first appeared on Church Health Reader and is used with permission.