Character development is the science of “ought.” The word “ought” is used to indicate correctness in thinking and action. A person, in one instance, acts with integrity, does what he ought to do based on moral standards established by the community and based on common sense, common interest, or common religious doctrine.
I am a Christian and an American who is sold on both Christian and U.S. Constitutional standards of beliefs and behaviors. This creates what is often a delicate balancing act, but generally speaking, the two sources work in concert to establish a code of conduct based on decency, justice, and integrity that ought to guide my thinking and behavior.
Unfortunately, I am a fallible, weak-willed, and rather cowardly person. Do not always do what I ought to do. The following story is a case in point.
Years ago, as a pastor of a small Baptist congregation in western North Dakota, I led a contingency from my congregation to Washington, D.C. for our national convention. The nearest Metro stop was a few blocks away from the convention center. The eight of us were walking down the sidewalk to get to the convention where we were to be treated to an evening banquet. We chatted as we walked.
But then we saw something that made all conversation stop. In the entryway to an abandoned store lay a teenage girl, sleeping. She was Black, healthy-looking, dressed in a white skirt and a blue top. She was barefoot. Her flip flops lay between her and door. She had spread newspapers spread on the concrete, not for padding but to provide a barrier between her body and the gum, spit, and whatever other nasty stuff is on the typical urban sidewalk. Her pillow was a large white stuffed Teddy Bear. Was she a junkie, a prostitute, a run-a-way? Probably all of the above.
We eight evangelical Christians, well-versed in Jesus Christ’s moral code which includes the virtue of compassion for the poor and the troubled, walked right on by, as did everyone else. As we walked, I thought of nothing but the girl asleep on the sidewalk. In a few minutes, we were at the convention center. We talked about how awful it was what we had just seen. We wrung our hands and filed into the banquet hall, where we ate a delicious meal and listened to a Christian speaker give talk about Christian charity.
I don’t know what that girl needed by way of charity, but she certainly needed something. Was she hungry? Did she need a safe place to go? Could she have used a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on? Did she want to go back home? Was she under the control of a pimp ort he chemicals she had ingested?
I don’t know what she needed, but I know what I did to help her — nothing. I am reminded of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I am reminded of Jesus’s words in Matthew 25 where he implored us disciples to take care of those like that girl, the “least of these.” He said what we do for them, we do for him. I had ignored Jesus as he lay on a dirty sidewalk.
So I fail at the ought business more than I’d like to admit. But just to show that I am not a complete reprobate, I relate the following tale. I do get the ought business right once in a great while.
In October, 2019, I took a trip to New Orleans on the train. On the return trip I was in line to board the Empire Builder in Chicago. This was the train that would take me through the Twin Cities and back home to Minot, North Dakota.
In the line next to me stood a small middle aged Hispanic woman, who was trying desperately to communicate to some people in line. Someone who spoke Spanish was trying to help her out. I learned that she was from Puerto Rico and that she was trying to get to Bismarck, North Dakota, where her son was critically ill in the hospital. Days ago she had flown from Puerto Rico to New York, got on a train to Chicago, and was going to take the train to St. Paul, where she hoped to get to the airport and get a flight to Bismarck where her son waited for her in his hospital room.
I volunteered to see her to the right car. I explained the situation to the conductor and he allowed us to be seated in the same car. I got to thinking about her situation. A woman who doesn’t speak English, she was going to have to get off the train in St. Paul, finder way to the Green Line Metro ride it to downtown Minneapolis, transfer to the Blue Line out to the airport in Bloomington, figure out how to buy a ticket to Bismarck, get on the plane, and find her way to the right hospital in Bismarck . It was a daunting exercise. It would be hard enough for someone who spoke English.
Once we were seated on the train, God started to work on me. I thought of the passage in Esther 4:14. “For who knows but that you have to this position for a time such as this.” I paraphrased a bit, but the intent is clear. Opportunities to do what you ought to do are placed in front of you. How do you respond.
I asked the conductor if it was possible to extend a ticket. He said to call Amtrak. I did and got a man who listened to the woman’s story and extended her ticket to Minot. He must have had a heathy “ought’ meter because he gave her a reduced rate. I paid with my credit card and she reimbursed me with cash. I had just signed up to be her travel agent, guide, and chauffer. When I told her what I had done, using a translating site on the internet, she asked how far it was from Minot to Bismarck. I told her, 110 miles. She wondered how she was going to get there. She asked how she would find the Sanford Medical Center. I told her I would drive her there and take her right to her son’s room, which I did.
I stayed in the room for about 90 seconds, long enough to witness a joyfelt and tearful reunion between a mother and her sick son. She introduced me to him, and when she turned back for another embrace, I slipped from the room and drove the two hours home.
I don’t have to tell you how I felt at that moment. You Already know. Many of you have done the same kind of thing, and felt the same way I did. I would give anything to have those few minutes on the sidewalk in Washington, D.C. over again. The banquet and speech were great, but I wish I had spent the evening with that girl and her Teddy Bear.