It took me awhile to understand that he was asking me a question. Not directly, but indirectly. His name is Ernie**. The first time I met him, he was intoxicated. When he found out I was a pastor, he had a word from God to share with me and our small team. It was amazing. Even drunk, he knew the Scriptures and what they meant. The haze of alcohol didn’t obscure his love for Jesus and a desire to serve him.He also wouldn’t stop talking–one passage after another, one observation after another. A barrage of words and prayers that exceed lengths of my sermons. The pattern repeats weekly. Blurry with beer, he launches into lengthy messages for us. He is not quick to talk about himself, but over time we heard more. Abused as a child, former military, abandoned by his 4 children and their mother, he descended into dependence on crack cocaine and alcohol. He had beaten cocaine but still struggles with alcohol. He dominates conversations so much that it’s hard to even get a word in. If you knock on Ernie’s door, he’s likely the only person you will talk to at the motel.Most every week he asks someone this question: Why are you here? We answer, we feel like Jesus has asked us to come, to love and encourage people living in the motels. Next week I’m sure he’ll ask again.

One day Diane gave me some insight, she said: Ernie doesn’t want to be a project. Made sense. He didn’t want to be on the receiving end of a bunch of rich white people handing out food and prayer.One evening I stopped at his room as we were wrapping up. He was mid-sermon with Tim and Patty, two of our team members. When I walked in he looked at me and asked why I was avoiding him. Ouch! The truth was I had been. My patience with his talking had worn thin; others in the group were better at sitting and hearing the good truths buried in words.We all tried to brush the question off but he persisted and asked again: Why are you avoiding me?I made a split-second decision.

I have this theory about relationships. Honesty brings closeness.  Dishonesty creates distance. If I wanted to have a real relationship with Ernie, I needed to be honest. So I told him the truth. I said I was avoiding him because when I stopped to say hi he wouldn’t stop talking. It made a relationship with him hard, and got in the way of my connecting with others at that motel.He got very quiet. That night his prayer was shorter and reflected a bit of what I said.

Another night I had a chance to sit by myself with him for about an hour. Less preachy, he shared more of his hurt, including some at the hand of churches and preachers. I began to understand that he thought I might be some big rich tv preacher who was hanging out on Colfax being a do-gooder.I opened up and told him more of my story. I shared my painful end to a long ministry in a large, wealthy suburban church.  I explained how difficult it was to figure out what was next and how Jesus sent us to Colfax. I told him that Diane and I had moved into a motel. He knew the motel, having lived in it for awhile. He asked, “could you live in a house if you wanted to?” I said, “yes.”

Again, he got really quiet. When he spoke again, quiet wisdom poured out as he portrayed both of us living out a wilderness experience and how we both needed to rely on God.  As brothers in Christ we prayed for each-other and I walked away grateful for a deepening friendship. Somewhere in there, I finally understood that he was asking me this question: Do you respect me? There are other questions behind it: Are we equals? Can we be real friends? Can this be about give-and-take, not charity? Are we really brothers in Christ?I have some growing to do in this area, but I think I can say yes.

I respect Ernie and am learning from him. Not everyone we are around pushes this question as Ernie did, but it is there. Do you respect us? Do we have value just because we exist? Can we really be friends?Good biblical theology teaches us that we are all created in the image of God and because of that, each of us has intrinsic value and worth. Each of us deserves respect. Our job, in the name of Jesus, is to give that respect to them.

**Names changed to protect identity.