Roddy glared at me with suspicion and defiance. He didn’t want me looking after him. Honestly, I didn’t want to be around him either.
I was helping an inner-city church with its summer youth program. More than 40 kids from the neighborhood were playing games, reading books, and getting ready for lunch. I asked one of the program coordinators how I could help.
She motioned toward Roddy and said: You can look after him. He’s acting up today. He needs attention.
Sure, I said. And soon regretted it.
I introduced myself to Roddy. He’s about 6 years old, African-American, from a poor family in the neighborhood. I’m a 60-year-old white guy from another place. We couldn’t be more different.
He knew I was going to try to ride herd on him – others had done it before. He’d have none of it. Roddy turned his back and walked away.
He went to a reading group in a corner of the room and started interrupting, glancing at me to gauge my reaction. The volunteer leading the group told Roddy he was welcome to stay and participate, but he couldn’t bother others. His response was to interrupt more.
I wondered: What do I do now? How in heaven’s name could the two of us connect?
I asked Roddy what he likes to do. He mentioned puzzles. I got one, dumped it on a table, and started sorting the pieces. Roddy came over and started helping. He didn’t understand the concept of using corner pieces and edge pieces – the ones with a flat side – to form the framework and work inward.
Roddy caught on quickly. He enjoyed the one-on-one attention. We started talking about our families, our favorite foods, our favorite sports.
The defiant eyes softened. He smiled.
When the puzzle was complete, he turned it upside-down and said: Let’s do it again! And again. We must have reassembled it a half-dozen times before lunch.
After we’d shared tacos and nachos, Roddy and the rest of the kids went home. As I drove home, I couldn’t get him out of my mind. He seemed so starved for attention and affirmation. The defiant, angry look in his eyes worried me.
How will Roddy’s life turn out?
Also, I wondered whether our time together would make any difference whatsoever in his jumbled life. He has so many influences tugging at him. Maybe he’d already forgotten about our time together and moved on.
I have no answers. I believe that showing kindness and love is worthwhile, in and of itself. If Roddy got nothing more than an enjoyable hour of doing puzzles followed by lunch, it was all good.
I also know that many people have intersected my life for brief moments and left a lasting impression, far more than they’ll ever know.
There was the black man who drove my alcoholic father home one Christmas Eve, showing me how compassion crosses color lines and other barriers. Then there’s the Greek woman who helped me find my way when I was helplessly lost at a train station in Athens, reminding me of what it means to feel kindness from a stranger.
Grace works that way. People come into our lives unexpectedly and show us things we need to see. Those people and those moments become edge pieces for us, if we let them.
It’s good to remind ourselves of that now, when we’re so divided and disconnected that we can’t even see the picture we’re meant to form together. We’ve forgotten that each of us is a piece of something bigger than ourselves.
As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it:
“God is giving us one to another like a puzzle actually. Individually we have such snaggled edges, such unique contours, but that shouldn’t keep us away from others since those rough parts are meant to be fitted together. … After all, the odd, jagged parts of ourselves are what connects us to each other and to God.”
As Roddy builds his life, maybe I’ll be one of the edge pieces that helps him frame things. Maybe our time together helps him see a different picture from what others are showing him.
Or maybe not. In any case, it was worth the try. All of us need edge pieces as we assemble our lives. Better yet, we need to become those edge pieces for others.