It could have been any small church in any faceless big city, Father McLauren thought later. In fact, it probably had been for the stranger that night, but that thought didn't really matter to McLauren. The truth was, it had occurred in his small parish, in his city, and he had witnessed it, which made the moment stand out so very vividly in his mind.
It was getting on towards evening on a crisp January day, and McLauren had been about to close the church. He kept the doors open during the day so that his parishioners and others could come in and praise God as they saw fit. It was a small service to both the city and his God, and McLauren was proud that he could do such a simple thing that brought joy to those who stumbled upon it. But that day, maybe because the weather looked like it couldn't make up its mind as to how it wished to manifest, nobody had been by. McLauren didn't mind; sometimes, the spirit didn't move anybody to come in. When it did, though, he wanted to be there.
But as he was standing in the doorway, looking up at the sky, a stranger came trudging up the stairs. McLauren wondered who the stranger might be. "There's a soup kitchen and a warm place to sleep down the street at Trinity Methodist," he said, wondering if that was all the man was looking for. While he looked like the sort of man who hadn't known home for a very long time, his beard was trimmed down, and his clothes were patched but laundered.
The stranger looked up and smiled. "No, Father, I've come to pray. I'm sorry if I'm late."
McLauren was intrigued by this man. "No, no. You made it before I closed the doors, go right ahead. If the Spirit moves you, then you are wise to heed Him."
The stranger smiled again, a sadder smile this time. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but then thought better of it. "Yes. The Spirit moves me. It's a good way to put it."
He stood there, as if waiting for some miracle, and then McLauren realized he was in the way. "Oh! Please come in, pick any spot in the house. I'm just going to close this door to keep the cold winds out."
The stranger nodded, and made his way to the very front pew, where he sat there for a very long time, as if studying the iconography. McLauren puttered around the church, as if he was working on putting things away, but after a few minutes, he realized the stranger didn't feel comfortable praying with him there. McLauren had been hoping to get some clue as to what sorrow had brought the stranger to his little church, but found that there would be none if he made his guest uncomfortable. He walked out of the sanctuary, and into the vestibule, where he paused, watching through the small window in the door between the two rooms, for the stranger to do something.
The stranger rose from his pew, and walked forward to the alter, where he knelt down. Responding perhaps to something only he could feel, the stranger simply began weeping. McLauren wanted to open the door and run down to the altar and tell the man that it would be okay, whatever was breaking his heart could be fixed, but he found himself rooted to the spot, unable to move.
"Father," the man spoke. "Father, it is your humble servant Josiah, here again to beg of You forgiveness and mercy on behalf of all of us." He went silent for a moment, as McLauren tried to figure out what was going on out here. "Your mercy is great, and it is to You that I appeal, once again. You have forgiven the trespasses of those who have spoken against You; those who have murdered and pillaged; those who have destroyed Your creations; those who have fallen and yet repent; those who never fell, having been born in fire and darkness; and even those who still walk in darkness have Your mercy. As for me and my tribe, Father, though, we have been cast not into darkness, but into the featureless grey of ambiguity, and we fear that we have been forgotten."
Sobs broke forth again. "Was our crime that great? Surely it was, for You instructed Your servants to expel us into this featureless grey. And our crime was to do what you had made us capable of doing, with no instructions that it was Wrong! Is this fair, Father? Is this right?"
McLauren quietly opened the doors to the sanctuary, and stepped inside. When this man said he had come to pray, he had meant it. It was a prayer of grief McLauren doubted God had heard since Jesus pleaded with him at Gethsemane. The man lay there prostrate on the floor, silent but for his tears again, and McLauren started down the center aisle when the man spoke again, this time rising and angrily crying out his demand.
"Father! Transform me into a creature you would want in your service; transform me so that I may know Your will and the glory of Heaven once again; transform me so that I no longer feel as if the world is passing me by while I watch quietly, waiting for my time to come again. This exile has to come to an end at some point, Father. At some point, will we once again be clean in Your sight?"
He looked up, as if hoping that there would be some acknowledgement of his words and his grief, only to find nothing. He dropped his heads in his hands and cried softly in his grief. McLauren walked back in the vestibule, picked up a box of Kleenex, and brought it back out in the sanctuary for the man to use. The stranger looked up as McLauren approached him, eyes shining with tears. "I don't need those," he said quietly. "I'm sorry for keeping you, Father."
McLauren nodded and set the box in the first pew. "Is there anything you wish to talk about?" he asked the stranger.
"No." The stranger seemed resolute on this point, and McLauren decided not to push it. The stranger paused for a second, and McLauren got that sense again that this man was far from home. The stranger spoke again. "Just a prayer to remind God of the forgotten ones."
With that said, the stranger turned and started walking out. McLauren said, "Wait!" The stranger turned. There were a thousand questions McLauren wanted to ask, but this was the only one that came out. "Would it be alright for me to pray for the forgotten ones as well?"
The stranger thought it over, and McLauren was afraid he was about to say no. Not that it would have stopped McLauren anyway, as his heart still felt the grief and the weight the man's prayer had contained. Finally, the stranger smiled for the first time since he had walked into McLauren's church. "Yes. I believe I would like that, Father, if you feel up to it."
And with those words, the stranger did walk out, leaving McLauren with more questions than answers. And for each and every day of the rest of his life, even after he was no longer the keeper of that small parish in that nameless city, he prayed for the stranger and his forgotten ones.
And he prayed that someday God would answer.