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"When Dinah Held My Hand"

April 3rd, 2019

From: "Inexpressible: Hesed and the Mystery of God's Lovingkindness"
p. 59-61
"When Dinah Held My Hand"
Our small reconciliation group, the Empty Hands Fellowship, had been meeting for prayer for about a year. It was 1995. At the same time, my church had been trying different strategies to attract minorities to our almost completely white congregation. None of them was working. We were tired of the Sunday church hour being the most segregated hour of the week. It occurred to me that if our invitations were not bringing anyone in, perhaps we should reach out and visit some of the local black churches.

First Missionary Baptist is one of the oldest congregations in our town, founded in 1870, not long after the Civil War. The pastor, Denny Denson, was one of the leaders in Empty Hands. We had become friends during the time we had been meeting for prayer, first at McDonald's and eventually at First Missionary. I thought I would begin by going there.

The first Sunday morning I visited, I was the only white person in the congregation. Still, I felt at home. We had been praying there on Wednesdays for several months, and I knew my way around. One elderly lady came up and greeted me with a warm smile. "Why are you here?" she innocently asked.
"I'm friends with Denny," I said. And that was good enough for her. 
As the service began, I found a place a few pews from the back. The first song was "Jesus Is on the Main Line." I had never heard it before, but it became one of my favorites in the years that followed as I became more regular part of the congregation. "Jesus is on the main line. Tell him what you want!"

Next to me was a large woman I had never met before. I later found out that she was the wife of Bob Smith, one of the members of Empty Hands. Her name was Dinah. After a few more songs, announcements, the reading of thank-you cards and letters, and a brief devotion provided by one of the deacons (Denny thought it was a good way to "keep them in the Word"), the pastor stepped up to the pulpit and began his sermon. 
At that moment, without saying a word, Dinah reached across the pew and took my hand. I froze, not knowing what to do. I looked around to see if anyone else was holding hands. Maybe this was another tradition I was unfamiliar with. But no one else was. Whenever Denny would repeat the theme of his sermon, a popular device in black preaching, Dinah would give my hand a squeeze. She didn't let go until the service was over. As we stood to sing the benediction, she smiled at me and said she hoped I would be back.

I was mystified by the experience. At the next Empty Hands meeting, asked her husband, Bob, if that was her usual way of treating strangers. He smiled and shook his head. "You don't know the half of it," he said. 
He told me that over the years he and Dinah had raised more than seventy-five foster children, both black and white. "I never knew when I came home from work if there was going to be another person at the table," he said. Now in his eighties, though he could have been enjoying retirement, Bob was bagging groceries at the local Kroger just to help out one of their adopted kids. When someone asked Dinah why she had opened her home in such an extravagant way, she responded simply. "If I don't love them, who else will?" That was Dinah Smith, someone I will never forget.

As I came to know her better over the years, I slowly began to understand what had happened that first morning at First Missionary. For a few moments I had entered into the gravitational field of Dinah's remarkable kindness. She had adopted me, had opened the door of her life to me. I had become an object of her hesed. I had done absolutely nothing to deserve her kindness. I had simply shown up with all my mixed motives. But she reached out to me and took my hand. 

As a stranger, a white male, who might have represented a host of negative feelings, I had no right to expect anything from her that morning. Not a welcome or a greeting, and certainly not an affectionate holding of my hand. But if she didn't love me, who else was going to? In that old, simple church over twenty years ago Dinah Smith taught me what it means to become the object of hesed.

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