Luke 15:1-7: Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
If you have lived in Winston-Salem for any significant amount of time, you know of Whoopi, a fiercely independent, homeless, 70-year-old African-American woman who pushes all of her belongings on a route that takes her from Wal-Mart on Hanes Mall to downtown by way of Stratford Road and back. Stories and legends of her abound.
Here are just a few of them:
*Whoopi is really a wealthy woman who went crazy when she lost her husband and child.
*Whoopi went insane when her house burned down and now she refuses to sleep indoors because of the horrible memories.
*Whoopi was sexually abused by her adopted or real family, and now refuses to trust people or sleep indoors.
One woman who has become friends with Whoopi is trying to get her story and figure out how to help her. Her name is Yvonne Rorrer, and she’s one of the few people Whoopi allows to help her once in a while. Yvonne created a Facebook Page only a few weeks ago for the purpose of having locals help spot her so that Yvonne can find her, and also to help fundraise for her much needed dental treatments and to buy a used van to give her on her 71st birthday. A van is Whoopi’s dream place to sleep because she doesn’t like to sleep in shelters, apartments, or houses. The Facebook page has grown to over 7,800 people because they share a passion to be in relationship with this proud woman who is determined to live her life without walls and on her own.
Yvonne and the group has been met with harsh criticisms—“you need to convince her to live in a house” or “you need to clean her up and get her a job” or “you need to get her to live by the rules of our culture” are comments and sentiments that have shown up on the Facebook wall. But Yvonne is firm—she only cares about Whoopi’s needs and sharing her story. Because of her, we’ve discovered her real name is Esther Smiles, and she used was adopted after being quote “thrown away” by her birth mother. She was never married and never had a child. Esther never owned a house, but did live in three of them before she began living outside. She was a live-in nurse’s aid that cared for sick children. She loves bluegrass music and cowboy shows.
You might be thinking Esther is the lost sheep in this story, but to me she isn’t. Her very existence caused 7,800 people to join the group, and continually update her location when she’s found. Over 7,800 people are struggling to live up to Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbor. Over 7,800 people are in a Greater-Winston-Salem community watch—not to protect their belongings, but to help another human being, made in the image of God. Though Esther almost always refuses help or handouts, she smiled when Yvonne told her that over 7,800 people cared about her and wanted to know she was safe.
I think we were sheep who were found by Esther and Yvonne. A growing number of us in the community are found in the effort to care for another. Those who are critical of Esther and Yvonne are still lost and haven’t yet been found—ones who cling to social norms rather than Jesus’ call to community and helping the poor.
But before I get too excited about being found by Esther, I have to remember that there are other groups, people, and communities to which I’m lost. Who would consider you a lost sheep waiting to be found? Who do you consider lost and what would you do to find them? And let us rejoice that Jesus will never stop looking for us, all the days of our lives.
Check out the Esther Smiles Foundation for more information: http://www.esthersmilesfoundation.org/Mission.html. If they succeed in getting Esther her van, they will continue to help elderly homeless persons in the Winston-Salem area.