Philip Yancey wrote some time ago about a lifelong lesson he learned from a man named Winston. May the message move us to greater thoughtfulness as we live in community together. Here is the story of Winston as written by Philip Yancey.[ref]Adapted from Philip Yancey blog, “Winston,” posted September 17, 2015, Copyright © by Philip Yancey, 2016. Used by permission.[/ref]

If you had met Winston on the street, you would have presumed him to be a vagrant. Day after day he wore the same ratty blue jeans and plaid flannel shirt. Even at the height of summer, he wore a stained jacket and often a knit cap covering his nearly bald head. He had more teeth missing than present. He walked with short, shuffling steps, assisted by a cane—until he went blind, when he hardly walked at all. Instead, he sat in a reclining chair by the front door waiting for the man from Meals on Wheels to deliver his daily fare.

You Would Not Know

You would not know that Winston was a World War II veteran who served in the occupation force in Japan. That he had seen the shadows of men, women, and children etched into the concrete bridges and buildings of Nagasaki. That in oil-starved Tokyo he rode buses powered by coal, with a little man squatting on top to shovel black chunks into the hopper. That he used to sneak food from the PX to his translator, who had eaten nothing but rice for months and suffered from beriberi.

You would not know that he once hitchhiked across the country to harvest wheat in Kansas.

You would not know that before the era of interstate highways Winston had driving adventures in Alaska and Colorado, and on dangerous roads in Mexico. Or that he owned the first Volkswagen Beetle in Georgia.

You would not know that Winston was my uncle. My own father, Winston’s brother, died the month after my first birthday, and Winston did what he could to fill in. He taught me to tie a necktie, and to shave, and to shoot a gun—the three essential skills for every Southern male. He paid me five dollars to memorize the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling, and had me read aloud the longest English sentence without punctuation.

When I went to college, my uncle gave up his two-pack a day smoking habit—Winston cigarettes, of course—and sent me fifty dollars a month, money I needed just to stay in school. Typically, he thanked me for giving him an incentive to quit smoking.

Pay It Forward

My uncle’s decline began after I moved away. His only living brother moved to Australia, and he lost both his mother and his sister to cancer. Winston got laid off during a recession and never landed another job. He earned a little money by doing chores for widows in the neighborhood: cutting grass, repairing plumbing and electricity. He could fix anything.

Diabetes affected his eyesight, and eventually Winston went blind. His daily menu never varied: frozen waffles in the morning and chicken nuggets at night. Blind, vulnerable, gullible, he made a perfect target for the grifters who prey on senior citizens, and on four separate occasions they cleaned out his bank account. Each time he lost his life savings he responded sheepishly, “Oops, I think I made another mistake,” and never gave it another thought. Though my uncle caused the rest of us endless worry, he seemed perfectly content.

In the last decade of his life, something amazing happened to my uncle Winston. All the goodness and kindness he had shown to others came back to him, like a boomerang. When he wore his World War II Veteran hat, strangers offered to buy him lunch. A nearby church signed him up for Meals on Wheels, adding much-needed nutrition to his diet. The widows he had helped in the neighborhood volunteered to take him to the doctor and to the grocery store. His next-door neighbor offered to sort his mail and pay his bills. A younger couple faithfully stopped by to let him pet their two dogs.

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A woman connected with an organization that helps the visually impaired got him a reading machine and helped monitor his insulin doses. She and her husband invited him to church, which he had not attended since childhood, and after he got used to the new music, my uncle sat on the front row every Sunday, singlehandedly raising the median age of one of Atlanta’s hip churches. A business executive became Winston’s best friend, spending many hours to help him negotiate the Veterans Administration and other bureaucracies. An African-American caregiver lovingly put both the house and my uncle into an order he had never known.

Thanks to these good-hearted people, my uncle was neither homeless nor friendless. And each of them told me, “The pleasure we get from being with your uncle far exceeds anything we might have given to him.” Winston continued his full, rich life even though he spent most of his time in the reclining chair by the front door. His friends and neighbors brought the world to him.

You would not know that, if you had wandered into the VA hospital and noticed my uncle sitting with the other damaged veterans in the waiting room. You would think, “Poor guy, what a sad life he must lead.” You would be wrong.

My uncle Winston died this summer at the age of 86. He has changed forever the way I look at people, especially those I am tempted to judge by appearance. The vagrant with the hand-lettered “Will Work for Food” sign at the street corner. The disabled child who interrupts church with loud grunts and groans. The tattoo-covered juveniles smoking in front of a drug rehab facility. The refugees swarming into Europe. I do not know their stories, but if I did I would likely discover behind them a mother, a compassionate friend, or perhaps a nephew, who sees past the appearance to the real person inside.

The biblical book of Hebrews says something similar, in fewer words: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.

Let Me Hear from You

Philip reminds us one of life’s great tragedies is presuming to know another person’s story without ever actually knowing the person. While many judged Winston by his outward appearance, Winston touched hearts . . . leaving the Father’s fingerprints of compassion and goodness on those He led to Winston.

What if God plans to answer your prayers or meet your needs through a “Winston”? Will you miss it because of earthly presumptions? What can you do today to make changes in how you see and treat others? Has your life been changed by a “Winston”? Let’s talk about this in the weeks ahead.

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  1. Adapted from Philip Yancey blog, “Winston,” posted September 17, 2015, Copyright © by Philip Yancey, 2016. Used by permission.