Loving Those on the Prodigal Road

by Jonathan Demers '11

Flower vendors. We often pass on their overpriced bundles as they stand near the intersection. We wait impatiently for the light to change, eager to avoid eye contact. Or perhaps we concede and purchase a bundle of pink roses. Rarely, though, when we see the disheveled old man on the corner, do we look past his bouquet to glimpse the imago dei beneath the guise.

Mack* is a flower vendor. Mack is my friend. He chose his occupation. He lives from home to home. He earns less than $100 a week. He is a veteran, father, political pundit, sports commentator, former husband, pizza connoisseur, and sarcastic cynic with a taste for a good burger. Mack is unabashedly authentic, with a sandpaper personality chafing at every socially unacceptable edge.

More importantly, Mack is a valued creation of the Lord, a lost child whose reconciliation our Messiah eagerly anticipates as He gazes down the prodigal road.

Worshipping Together

Cedarville sponsors nearly 70 community ministries each year. These teams serve in a variety of ways: providing childcare, assisting the elderly, training the young, encouraging the poor, and strengthening the local church. I have had the pleasure of serving as a leader for a team dedicated to serving alongside a small church in downtown Dayton, about 25 miles from campus.

All Nations Bible Fellowship (ANBF) is a collection of fewer than 100 believers from many backgrounds. Most come from challenging contexts with limited financial resources, yet the authentic joy of a typical Sunday morning has caused more than a few visitors to claim our community as their church home. ANBF is committed to serving the community through youth ministry, ex-convict rehabilitation, adult mentoring, neighborhood outreach, and the proclamation of God’s Word. Our team of more than 20 student volunteers comes alongside the church’s mission by helping with everything from music ministry to Sunday school classes.

During my two and a half years at ANBF, I have seen God work tangibly and powerfully in the lives of hopeless youth. I’ve seen elementary children learn to use the alphabet more effectively at church than through their hurried public education system. I’ve seen older students transform their consistently disruptive behavior into compassionate, considerate conduct. I’ve cheered as young women emerge from the clutches of prostitution. I’ve witnessed young children overcome the violent shooting of their now-incarcerated mother. I’ve seen my fellow students transcend their predominately suburban backgrounds and display compassion to the broken of downtown Dayton. These triumphs are sourced entirely in the love of Jesus Christ, expressed through the benevolent church community at ANBF.

Sharing Conversation

One particular Sunday, I made my way over to Mack’s corner. I anticipated the gripes of a slow sales week. His left glove, marked by years of cigarette burns, held a thin bouquet of red roses instead of his typical smoke. Further observation confirmed today’s slow sales: 13 of 16 flowers remained in the plastic bucket. My friend would need to sell five more today to make a profit.

Sure enough, I was met with the familiar grumble of gruff complaints. The weather did little to lift either of our moods, with rain falling at a steady rate. I stood on the muddy corner, head bobbing in response to each of Mack’s spoken grievances. Soon, though, the conversation turned to the week’s football predictions, the latest political gaffe, and good food.

Then there was Tom Brady.

Brady, my favorite NFL team’s All-Pro quarterback, was the subject of Mack’s latest diatribe. “He’s got it all!” Mack said with rigor. “That guy’s won more Super Bowls than most players in the NFL can count.” At the time, Brady was not only a successful athlete but also dating a world-famous supermodel, which Mack
was quick to point out.

In one of those moments where you’re graced with just the right words, I reminded Mack that Brady was still unsatisfied. He had once stated in an interview that he expected more substantial fulfillment — “something else.” For the briefest of moments, Mack’s grizzled demeanor softened with puzzlement. Our following conversation was a deep revelation of God’s redeeming work, not only in regard to eternal security but in the life we live here and now.

How often we miss our Lord’s desire for Mack, and others like him, amid the due diligence of our labor in the fields. How often we, the redeemed of the Lord, exchange the compassion of the ever-merciful Father for dehumanizing neglect. How often do we actively choose to look past the layers of defeat, addiction, pain, abuse, or suffering and see the handiwork of Creator God? How often do we serve the Lord by attending to the downtrodden, the least of these?

Praying Them Home

To this day, my friend Mack still walks the prodigal road. Our Lord still eagerly anticipates his arrival. I pray for Mack regularly — that his heart would be renewed, that he would know unconditional love, and that my interactions with him would enhance rather than obstruct his path to redemption.

Mother Theresa was once asked how she maintained the motivation to care for the poor, sick, and downtrodden. She replied, “The dying, the crippled, the unwanted, and the unloved — these are all Jesus in disguise.” What a profound statement of faith! Whatever we have done to the least of these, we have done unto Christ Himself.

As the apostle John explained, Christian love reflects Christ’s sacrifice; we lay down our life in response to His atoning death. In fact, authentic love requires sacrifice. I am compelled to love others by the same love Christ extended to me. I have learned that to love Christ is to love Mack.

*Name has been changed to maintain confidentiality.