There is folk wisdom which says never argue with a fool because a third person will not be able to tell the difference. Myself, I am partial to the wisdom from the West of Kenya which says, if you are bathing in the stream and someone steals your clothes don’t chase them. I had to think about that one at first – but in thinking about what the third person sees – it then became clear.
Yesterday, I was out front of the church. I was not in my Franciscan habit as we were crawling around spaces and places looking for leaks that were affecting the west-facing facade of our church. As we were standing on the sidewalk gazing upward, a passerby began to berate a woman in a very aggressive and belittling tone. She was standing by a statue of the Blessed Mother located on the side of the church. She was quietly in prayer, one hand resting on the base of the statue. He was yelling from 20-30 feet away that she should only be praying to God, to Jesus, and that one wasn’t to pray to Mary. The poor woman, who is one of our local street persons, was like a deer in the headlight. She could not imagine what she had done, why this person was yelling at her, and why she shouldn’t pray.
Our erstwhile evangelist continued on, began teaching her the Lord’s Prayer in a voice and tone that was none too prayerful, finished that and began to pontificate (and I deliberately use that word for its ironic effect) his view of Christianity. This all played out in full view of people leaving work from the office buildings, county and federal courthouses, and the like. I wonder if he understood the witness to Christ he was giving. If I correctly read the faces of the passers-by I do not think they saw what St. Paul asks of us – to put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, forbearance, forgiveness, and above all, to put on love (Col 3:13-14).
Had our erstwhile evangelist stayed around rather than march off to celebrate his hallow victory, he might have seen the compassion of Christ in the people who went to console the woman. He might have heard what she was praying about – and to whom. Her prayer was to Jesus that he watch over all who would pass the coming evening on the streets.
There is always someone watching. You always witness to something. It may not be the witness you intended or that God calls us to.