Jesus stood in front of me at the door and I turned him away.
I didn’t help him.
I didn’t say yes to his request for money.
I stood in my doorway and turned him away.

As a second year Peace Corps volunteer in The Gambia, I was comfortable with the language and customs. Daily, I was becoming more and more a part of the community. And yet there were still plenty of times when my privilege and color reminded me that I was, and always would be, a visitor. The day I turned Jesus away from my door was one such day.

My friend Camara worked at the nearby historical site 9 kilometers from my village. We connected quickly as he passed through my village to and from work and as I took friends and family to visit the historical site. We shared about our culture and religion. He answered question after question for me when I was confused or feeling lost in the language. He invited me to visit the other historical markers with him. We laughed together.

He was my friend, which makes it all the more condemning that I turned him away.

It was morning when he came to my hut and knocked at my door. We greeted one another as is the custom: How are you? How is your family? How is your health? And our response always: Peace only. After the requisite time greeting, he then explained why he came to see me. He needed money.

There in front of me stood Jesus in the face of my friend and I denied him the help he requested.

I wasn’t unfamiliar with requests for money and food. But the requests generally came from strangers upon seeing my skin color. Compared to many of my Gambian counterparts, I did have money and resources. And with each request for money the mental gymnastics took place. For if I gave to one person could I give to the next person who asked? And how sustainable was it to hand out money upon demand? All of these thoughts and questions went through my head as my friend Camara stood before me.

My friend asking for money to help his family.

It seemed like an eternity as the two of us stood face-to-face. Finally my answer came: No, I’m sorry.

I gave him my answer and hadn’t even invited him into my hut.

There in front of me stood Jesus in the face of my friend and I denied him the help he requested. Even so my friend Camara thanked me. Then he did something that all Gambians do upon leaving someone but for which I felt completely undeserving–he blessed me and wished me peace.

He said, “Peace be with you.”

I’ve relived that scene over and over in my mind. Each time I feel the pain and embarrassment of turning him away. Each time I feel the unworthiness of being called friend and Christian. I had money and resources at my fingertips and I denied them to someone in need. I thought only of myself.

Remembering that day, I hear Camara’s parting words, “Peace be with you.” The memory brings me to my knees every time.

I cannot go back to my Peace Corps days, and I cannot help Camara anymore. But I can remember him and his blessing: “Peace be with you.”

I can honor him by honoring my neighbors. I can give more freely. I can love unconditionally. I can welcome the stranger. I look for Jesus standing in front of me and welcome him in, offer him a seat, and pour myself out to him in love and service.

Kimberly Knowle-Zeller
Kimberly Knowle-Zeller is an ordained ELCA pastor, mother of a toddler, and spouse of an ELCA pastor. She lives with her family in Cole Camp, Mo. Her website is kimberlyknowlezeller.com.

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