The railroads are today only a shadow of what they once were, connecting even the smallest of hamlets and villages to the larger world of country and cities. The terminals in the cities spanned acres of land filled with tracks, sidings, switches, and such. The tracks themselves served as boundaries between entire populations, with the resulting description of those populations as being on this or "the other side of the tracks." That "other side" became shorthand for the poor and disadvantaged.
The trains are for the most part, long gone, but the terminology remains, as do the invisible, but very real boundaries that separate the haves from the have-nots. I grew up on the right side of the tracks. Some thirty-five years ago I first met my friend who came from the other side. She was still a teenager growing up on one of the hardscrabble farms outside of Sinclairville, and in the thirty-five years since then, she has drifted in and out of my life, in and out of the church. Whether in or out, life has never been easy for her. A combination of diminished options, poor decisions, and little in the way of marketable skills ensured that she would remain at the bottom of the social and economic ladder throughout her life.
We talked this afternoon. She is in a hospital bed at her daughter's house, weakened by the cancer that has invaded her lungs and brain, tumors that were more resources available to her, might have been discovered in time. As it is, she has perhaps six weeks. "I'm not afraid to die, Jim. I know Jesus has a place for me." She smiled as she spoke. Moments before, she had wept as she recalled bad decisions she had made, mistakes and sins that still troubled her conscience even though she knew they were forgiven. In all the years I have known her, I've never met anyone with so many cards stacked against them, and yet she never failed to be cheerful and optimistic. Never.
Today she lay, slowly dying, yet she spoke not of the unfairness of life, but of her gratitude to me for introducing her to Jesus, and to my family for accepting her. I don't know what to do with that. I'm humbled, and grateful to have known her all these years. I've learned a lot from her about faith and endurance in the face of overwhelming odds. Not accepting her never occurred to me. Why wouldn't we? But acceptance was not her usual experience. Exclusion was the norm for her, so the welcome that to us seemed normal was for her an unusual gift of grace.
The world is full of people who need that gift of grace more than those of us fortunate enough to be born on the right side of the tracks can imagine. For the Christian, grace is our currency in life, or at least it should be. We forget how unusual it is for some people. Tonight, I go to sleep thankful to be able to count this woman as a friend and even in some ways, a mentor of grace. I may have extended grace to her, but I am the indebted one. She taught me so much, and today as we prayed together, she ministered grace to me once more. I am humbled, for I sat this afternoon in the presence of Christ.