Faith Stories: Lessons for the Heart
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”–Matthew 25: 37-40
Charles Rainey taught me about poverty. He also taught me about dignity. And, in the end, he taught me about love. The vision of this classmate abides with me even now, after decades of time and experiences have passed. You see, Charles Rainey was a classmate of mine in the fourth grade. We both were growing up in a bleak eastern Tennessee mining town–I in relative comfort in ‘company housing,’ Charles in a backwoods cottage barely accessible by a rutted dirt road.
Charles Rainey had no shoes and very tattered clothes. He didn’t smell good and he always looked like a defeated soul. He sat in the desk behind mine, often with his head down in sheer exhaustion. His red hair was matted, and his hands looked like those of an old man, gnarly and chapped. Every morning Charles Rainey brought a quarter with him that he would pull from his pocket to give to Mrs. Ballew as she was taking up the lunch money for the day. Most of the children in the class paid for their lunches by the week, but Charles Rainey brought his precious quarter daily.
In the lunchroom, Charles Rainey sat by himself. He savored every bite of the pinto beans, cornbread and milk that was offered, and every day–without fail–went back to the line for seconds. He broke my heart with his accepting solitude, his unrelenting hunger.
In the classroom, Charles Rainey showed his brilliance when called on by the teacher. He understood grammar and advanced math much better than those of us considered to be the brightest students. He flaunted nothing, however. I think the combination of his quiet dignity and genuine humility made me love him.
Of course, I talked to my mother about Charles Rainey–what can we do to help? Quiet conspiracies grew to somehow address his needs without wounding his pride. But it was a treacherous road to travel because Charles Rainey’s father was fiercely and proudly independent and angrily refused to accept charity of any kind. Eventually, Mrs. Ballew and a group of mothers were successful in providing sturdy shoes and a winter coat, but we never knew at what cost to Charles Rainey.
Charles Rainey taught me compassion. He has remained in my heart all these years–and always as ‘Charles Rainey,’ never just ‘Charles.’ He taught me the lesson that Jesus tried so fervently to teach us–to love our neighbor, to be concerned for all of God’s children, to share from our abundance with those who are in need.
Knowing Charles Rainey rocked my 9-year-old world, and through that experience, our awesome God–the ultimate opportunist–shaped my heart’s path for the future. I never saw Charles Rainey after fourth grade. I have no idea of how his life progressed. My prayer has always been that he somehow knew that he was held dear. And most of all, I have prayed that he knew that he was beloved by our God who cares for all His children.
Prayer: God of love and mercy, mold us and shape us into the persons you intend us to be. As we experience the grace and love and blessings that you shower us with throughout the times of our lives, give us the heart to share those ultimate gifts with others, especially our brothers and sisters in need. Amen.