Aitkin UMC welcomes the stranger at the door

August 29, 2018
Aitkin UMC's float in an annual "Fish House Parade" / Photo courtesy of Aitkin UMC

By: Rev. Dawn Houser

This deeply moving story written by Rev. Dawn Houser, who serves Aitkin UMC and Emily UMC, recounts how members of Aitkin UMC embraced the opportunity to be the heart, hands, and feet of Jesus Christ in their community and live out Jesus' command to love God and love neighbor. By venturing outside of their comfort zone and welcoming a homeless man who literally showed up on their doorstep last Christmas, they built a lasting friendship, shared Christ's love, and inspired this former stranger to develop a relationship with God.

It was Saturday, December 9, 2017. I was working in my office, preparing for worship on the second Sunday of Advent. At about 11:30 a.m., the church doorbell rang. A stranger was standing outside—a young man. He was so cold that he could hardly talk. He asked, “Can I come in and just warm up?” We stood just inside the door and talked. I asked this young man’s name. For the purposes of this story, we will call him Jim.
I must admit, my “mom radar” came out! I had a million questions: Who are you? Where do you live? Why are you walking around in this cold? Where did you come from? I learned that Jim was a 35-year-old hungry, homeless father of four in recovery from drugs and alcohol. He was not from Aitkin. I asked him where he would be staying that evening. He told me he didn’t know but was trying to work something out. I sent him to the sheriff’s department to see if they could help him out with some Salvation Army funds for a hotel room for a couple of days. As he left, I told him to get in touch with me if they couldn’t help him. He told me he would see me for church in the morning. I immediately thought, “I’ve heard that before.”
Forty-five minutes later, as I was picking up a few groceries, my cell phone rang. It was Jim. The sheriff’s department would not help him because he was a single man with no children in need of assistance. His children were with their mother. I told him I would meet him at a local hotel and pay for one night’s stay there.
Jim thanked me and again told me he would be in church the next morning. Being a pessimist, I thought to myself, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” As I thought about why I was helping him, it occurred to me that this is not an opportunity to grow the church by one more warm body but to be the heart, hands, and feet of Christ in the world. After all, isn’t that what Advent is all about? Besides, I was more concerned with planting a seed in this young man’s life. It only took a five-minute conversation to realize that he was hurting in a way that the average person would not recognize.
The next morning, I was in the pulpit and ready to begin the service at 10:30 a.m. At 10:31, in walked Jim. I was shocked to see him there. He was cleaned-up and looked refreshed. But I was concerned: When the service was over, how would the congregation receive and react to him? I hoped he wouldn’t share too many details about himself. I was afraid that would scare them off.
When the service ended, many people introduced themselves to Jim and invited him to fellowship time. I was amazed to discover him talking with an entire table filled with active members of the congregation. He was sharing all kinds of details about his life and his predicament.
After everyone left, I asked Jim what his plan was for the night. That table full of congregation members had given him $70 to pay for another night’s stay at the hotel, which was $55, and dinner. I was amazed and filled with joy at their generosity! They had passed the test of hospitality as far as I was concerned. As their pastor, I was so proud to say that I belonged to them.
On our way out the door, I asked Jim: What about tomorrow and the rest of the week? He said he had to take it one day at a time, and I told him if he was in a bind the next night to contact me.

Aitkin UMC's "Night in Bethlehem"
On Monday afternoon, Jim stopped by to see me and had no place to stay. I told him, “I am going to do something I have never done before: I am willing to let you stay at the church for the night. It is too cold to stay outside. There is no shower here, but there is a bathroom and a kitchen. Feel free to use whatever you need.” I showed him around the building and ran home to get pillows and a blanket. Our youth room had just been remodeled and a wi-fi TV was there. I showed Jim how to watch Netflix, Amazon movies, and YouTube. As I left the church, I hollered, “Jim, you are night security.” Then I proceeded to pray, “Lord, don’t let this be a mistake! Please protect the church and don’t let him rob us blind! I am counting on you to make this right!”
The next morning, I beat feet to the church by 7 a.m. (which is unheard of for me). Jim was still asleep, and everything seemed to be okay. When Jim woke up, he asked me for a screwdriver. He had fixed the door in the men’s bathroom, and he needed a screwdriver to finish the job. As the day went on, I discovered that he had gone through the church and made all kinds of small repairs.
Jim didn’t have a plan for the next night either. I made a phone call to our head trustee and explained what had happened and that Jim had spent the night in the church and made all kinds of repairs. I asked the trustee if we could buy supplies for Jim to paint the east entrance and hallway of the church, give him a place to stay while he worked, and pay him $200 when the work was complete. The trustee said, “I was hoping you did something to help him out. And yes, give him a place to stay and hire him!”
Christmas came, and Jim had no place to go, so he spent Christmas with my family. We enjoyed his company and having him in our midst. We had developed a relationship with him and a level of trust so that we felt comfortable having him come into our home for showers and to eat dinner with us. (We don’t have a spare room, so we couldn’t have him sleep in our home.) For Christmas, many in the congregation gave him gift cards to the local grocery store and other wonderful gifts of treats and different items they thought he could use.
Jim spent seven weeks living at the church and under the care of the congregation. Some members of the church who own a car dealership eventually gave him a job, and the congregation helped him to get set up in an apartment. He also had legal issues that we helped him navigate. I have gone to court to vouch for his character and made a commitment to get him to his next court dates. These legal issues seem to be remedying themselves.

The day Jim arrived on our doorstep, he rang the bell out of desperation. He had no place else to go. But it did not take long for him to begin to experience the love of Jesus Christ through many different people. He did not encounter judgment; he encountered genuine acceptance and love. As he spent time with us, he began to see and experience God in a whole new way. He had thought of God as being judgmental and Christians as being hypocritical. He discovered that that was not the case. He has since developed his own relationship with God. It has been fun and exciting to watch that relationship grow.
When Jim moved out of the church and into his apartment, I wondered if we would keep seeing him. The answer is yes! He is as involved with this congregation as anyone who has been a part of it their entire life. We are thankful for the gifts and talents he brings. He is one of us!
Jim has thanked me many times for all that we have done for him. I told him, “No, thank you! You have given us the opportunity to live out the two greatest commandments: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind, and to love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Aitkin UMC was given a wonderful opportunity to truly be the heart, hands, and feet of Jesus Christ in our community. We will forever be thankful for that, and we are looking forward to more strangers arriving on our doorstep. We are waiting expectantly for God to open more doors in our neighbors’ lives, that we could share with them the love and joy that comes from being a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

122 West Franklin Avenue, Suite 400 Minneapolis, MN 55404

(612) 870-0058