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Spring 2008 | Volume 31, Number 1 | Features

The Assignment

By Jake Herzog
Photo by Mike Siegle

Jake Herzog, , winner of Response Essay Competition 2008.
Jake Herzog, one of two Response Essay Competition 2008 winners.

“Your assignment is to go out into the community, play the part of a person in need, and ask for help.” He couldn’t be serious. The anxiety in the room was palpable. The professor of my Counseling 101 class fielded the barrage of questions. “What about ethics? Aren’t we lying?” “When is it due?” Reality began to sink in. We were really going to have to do this. After class, I retreated to the cloistered safety of my dorm room and considered my options.

I decided to create a scenario that was based on fact. I remembered an incident in which God did something amazing, dramatic, and supernatural for me — but few friends believed me when I told them. Now, I would tell the same outrageously true story to a stranger. My only deception would be my appearance.

When the day arrived for execution of my plan, I pulled on my ratty, comfy, hated-by-my-girlfriend hooded sweatshirt. Unshowered, unshaven, and unkempt, I looked sufficiently needy. Not a stretch for most guys in college. In my Chevy Nova, I made the one-hour drive north from Oakland University in Michigan to Frankenmuth. But I was well known in my small hometown, so I continued traveling to nearby Saginaw.

Looking for the most imposing church I could find, I parked in the empty lot next to a tall concrete edifice, gathered my courage, and headed for the front door. A young Protestant entering a Catholic church, I felt like Lewis and Clark. “Would it be possible to talk to someone?” I asked the woman at the desk. She offered coffee, left the room, and returned to inform me that someone would see me. My ruse was working. A priest stepped out, invited me into his office and offered a chair.

I told him my story. Then I told him I was distressed because the people I told about my experience didn’t believe me. The priest said, “I believe you.” We spent a few more minutes in discussion; then I thanked him for his time and left. I had done all I could to make the experience as authentic as possible, yet I still felt strangely grateful that I hadn’t been exposed as a fraud.

Within the next four years, I graduated from college and married my girlfriend. We toured most of the Western states on our honeymoon, and ended up in Seattle. Within minutes of our arrival, we decided that the Emerald City was as nice as anywhere else we had seen and began looking for an apartment. (My hooded sweatshirt didn’t make the trip with us, a casualty of marital compromise. I chose the disposal method recommended for out-of-service American flags and burned it.)

I found work in advertising sales at Seattle radio stations KCMS/KCIS, and my wife and I volunteered to direct the youth program at nearby St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. After services one Sunday, I was standing outside with two teens from our youth group when a stranger approached. “Excuse me. I could use a little help. I’m kinda hungry. Does anybody have a few dollars?”

He looked first at the young man to my left, who shrugged and said, “Sorry.” He then looked at my friend on my right, and received the same response. His gaze turned toward me. I studied his woolen cap, his small backpack, his olive-drab clothing, trying to size him up. He was young, perhaps 18 years old. I decided to test him: “My wife and I always go out to eat after church, how about joining us?”

“I’m kinda in a hurry and need to catch a bus; I’m really pressed for time.” It was the answer I expected, but not the one I was hoping for. As my friends watched, I made a decision that still surprises me. “I keep my wallet in my car, follow me.”

I headed to the parking lot with the stranger in tow. When we reached my car, he suddenly spoke: “I can tell you the truth now.” I stopped fumbling with my car keys and faced him. “I don’t really need your money. I’m a student at Seattle Pacific University, and I had to do this for a classroom assignment.” I was stunned.

We shared a few moments of laughter as I told this kindred spirit about my own college assignment. Before he turned to go, he said something I’d never forget. “You might want to know that this was the third church I stopped at. You were the first person who offered to help.” He went on his way, and I walked back to my waiting friends in front of the church. “He is probably going to buy drugs,” they said. I shook my head and smiled. “No, he’s not going to buy drugs.”

I have often wondered: What were the odds of me being on different ends of the same classroom experiment 2,000 miles apart? Even more remarkable, I had chosen to conduct my test at a church, and a church is where I was tested. God’s fingerprints were all over it. What was the lesson? Just like the “stranger” from SPU, I was compelled to leave the comfort of my classroom and engage the culture. Not as an agent of change but as a disheveled outsider, ready to swallow whatever the culture would dish out. And were it not for a kindly priest who looked beyond my appearance several years earlier, I might have had a different response for the student in Seattle. I shudder when thinking that somewhere on the SPU campus a student might have reported, “I stopped at three churches. Everyone said ‘no.’”

How do I know experiences like this change the world? Because my experience changed me. Thirty years have passed since my encounter with the student from SPU, and I still have many reasons to be kind to strangers.

The Apostle Paul writes in Hebrews 13:2 that I might be entertaining angels. Or I might be entertaining a student on-assignment. On the surface neither one would appear to be a test, but that is exactly what they are. And I’m convinced the results will be remembered in heaven.

Jake Herzog graduated from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, in 1976. He has had a 30-year career in advertising sales at the radio stations Spirit 105.3 KCMS and AM 630 KCIS in Seattle, and Praise 106.5 KWPZ in Lynden. He and his wife, Ruth, have four grown children and live in a log cabin outside Duvall, Washington. Herzog has been reading Response for 15 years.

Read other Response essay winners.

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