“I am going to the store and I will be right back.” These are the first words I remember my mother speaking to me. I do not remember songs or lullabies. I do not remember hugs or kisses or sweet-smelling pies. My first memory of my mother is her leaving me on the doorsteps of strangers, promising to return.
My mother left me with a couple who adopted and raised me. My parents raised seven children, many grandchildren, two nephews, and a great-grandchild. They took in that little girl who had been left on their steps. They cared for all who no one else would bear the responsibility. My parents’ actions trained me to care for the least of these.
Seven years ago I received a call informing me that my birth mother was deathly ill. She needed a bone marrow biopsy but would not consent. This procedure would allow the doctors to find the cause of her illness. I spoke to my mother on the telephone, and she said she would consent if I would come. The same woman who had lived her life without me wanted me to come to her. Without hesitation, I went. The doctors performed the procedure and found the cause of her illness. What gave my mother hope and the desire to live was a promise. I promised her, “I am going back to Georgia, but I will be back to get you.” The same promise that she had used to deceive me, I extended to reassure her.
The mother who did not take care of me needed me to take care of her. She had been a mother who did not keep her word. She left me in a place that shaped me to keep mine. I was able to put aside the anger and pain of being abandoned when I saw a woman who had suffered through life battling mental illness. I saw a woman who had no one who because her illness had broken relationships and had hurt those who loved her most. I saw a woman who was now in the category of the least of these. As I looked upon her, I thought about how God so loved the world–even my mama–that He gave His Son to die for her. She was not the least. She was worth a life, the life of God’s Son.
Who are the least of these? The least of these are those who make us uncomfortable. They are the drunk and the abusers, the liars and the creators of confusion. They are the hungry and thirsty on the side of the road who hold up cardboard signs that read, “Homeless. Please help me.” The least of these are the sick who are imprisoned who have no one to visit them. They are the strangers and the ones we view as “the other.” Today they are the illegal immigrants who have been separated from their children. They are the mentally ill who many believe a pill or exorcism will heal. The least of these is my mother.
My mother struggles with mental illness. She is one for whom I have to do. Christ stated, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me (Matt. 25:40, KJV).” When I honor her, I am honoring Christ. When I extend grace to her, I am extending grace to Christ. When I love on her, I am loving Christ.
My world has come full circle. The mother who fell into the category of the least is now my greatest. She is my greatest supporter, my greatest admirer, and my greatest champion. She has stood on the sidelines and cheered me through seminary and a doctoral program. She stood with tears in her eyes on the day I was ordained a minister of the gospel. She has now returned from the store, and I get to live out my role as daughter.
There are many around us who have fallen from grace and have dropped down to the least. What are you doing to care for the least of these? Whose cell are you visiting? Whose child are you feeding? For inasmuch as you do, you do unto Christ.
Ossie X. McKinney is minister of music at Faith Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia.