A single event can change your outlook.
To understand this story you must first know the kind of person I was, or at least perceived myself to be, as a youth of eighteen years of age. In fact, I was a very good athlete. In my senior year I was co-captain of the football team and captain of the wrestling team. Without much effort, I was on the National Honor Society all through high school. Judging from this you might think here is another ego-inflated, self-promoting teenager. You could not be further from the truth.
I was the most insecure, shy, withdrawn young person you would ever meet. I would turn beet red with embarrassment at the drop of a hat. A trait my friends picked up on, especially the girls, and used quite often to entertain themselves by saying things to turn me red, then enjoying their laughter. I rarely spoke to strangers, and oral book reports ranked with public flogging of early America. If I spoke to a girl or went as far as to ask her to dance or out on a date, I could expect stomach cramps, weak knees, and sometimes quick trips to the restrooms. This would always be made worse by an outbreak of zits to add to what I perceived to be a much below average physical attractiveness.
People who have known me only in my later life find the description hard to believe, as now I always speak to a stranger and often strike up lengthy conversations with both men and women I encounter on my travels.
In my youth, Mother insisted we be active in church life, and fifty years ago that was the primary meeting place for young people outside of school events.
Our church had hired a new, gung-ho youth minister we all were very fond of. One Sunday evening after reading scripture on evangelism, he announced that he had prepared a list of young people in the community that did not attend church and assigned to each of us three names to call on. The assignment was simple; we would go to their houses and invite them to youth group at church. Simple for you perhaps, but more terrifying to me than ten trips to the dentist or being forced to run naked through the cafeteria of our high school during the lunch hour. But being committed to our youth minister and to God, to some degree at this age, I took my three names.
One of the names was that of a shy, withdrawn, seemingly friendless, freshman boy. I had seen him and knew his face but had never spoken to him. But there again, I had not spoken to a lot of people given my shy nature. There was no father figure in his home. The mother was a kind, well-educated, and friendly woman. When nerve finally led me to the door, and I was invited in, I am sure this was the shortest visit in the world. I am thankful that I have no memory of what inept words came from my mouth. And I left with the feeling of, “Thank God that’s over.” I suspect the call lasted far less than five minutes.
Time passed and none of the three I visited ever came to join us. This is not a surprise under any circumstance, but certainly not surprising given my clumsy attempt at evangelism.
Several months passed and one day at school I heard the boy that I visited had committed suicide. Small feelings of guilt began to creep in. The what if’s started in my mind. What if he had come to youth, things might have been different. What if I had done a better job . . .
A couple of days later I returned home from school, and mother told me the boy’s mother had called wanting to speak to me. Mother had told her I would return her call. Why didn’t mom just take a message? It was obvious, in my mind, the boy’s mother knew the same thing I knew. I had let him down.
But Mother said I would call back, and Mother’s word was like a sacred oath. So I braced myself as I made the call to a loving, mourning mother, who had just lost the most important thing in her life. The gest of the call was this. She thanked me for visiting her son, and explained that several times in the months that followed, her son had expressed that he could not believe a senior athlete would call on him.
She did not know! You might think when I hung up the phone I would be relieved. I was not! If that clumsy, inept call meant that much to him, what could have happened if I had done a better job, or called several more times?
This event has troubled me for fifty-eight years now. My faith teaches me God forgives our sins, and I believe this. But I don’t know about the sins of omission. The things we could have done. Should have done. The opportunities that we let slip by. Will God forgive me? I don’t know.
The event made me a better, more compassionate person. I listen to people; I try to look for opportunities and try not to shirk my responsibility to my fellow man, but I’m still not sure how God’s reaction will be to my house call of 1960.
This story is dedicated to my daughter, Audra, who encouraged me to write some of my thoughts before becoming completely senile.
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