It was a hot August day when Mattie stepped out on the back porch. She heard boys playing down in the creek behind the building . It was two of the Belding boys and another boy and they were wading in the creek with their homemade bows and arrows hunting water snakes again.
Mattie walked over to the nearby willow tree and pulled off a branch and stripped the leaves off of it.
Mattie hollered, “You boys! Come on up here right now”
The two Belding boys obeyed and walked up the bank to Mattie while the other boy ran off.
“I told you boys to stop hunting snakes in the creek. , Mattie said, “Them snakes are gonna get you one of these days. Now come here.”
She switched both the boys and sent them off.
My dad was no more than six at the time and my uncle no more than eight. They were dirt-poor and the children of one of the town drunks. This was 1945 in segregated Oklahoma and Mattie was a black prostitute and the madam of the local brothel.
There weren’t many positive influences in my dad’s childhood. The extended family saw them as bad influences for the cousins, and they were right, so they were not welcomed around family. In time people from the community would take the youngest kids from my grandparents and take them to a Masonic children’s home in Guthrie Oklahoma where the only positive was steady meals. But the events I am interested in today happened before that when my dad was quite young.
Mattie knew the boys. She had seen the boys a few times each week as they rode out with their father on a wagon pulled by a mule to gather garbage from the townspeople, cafe’s, grocers and businesses. Their father would make a little money collecting the garbage, buy liquor with the money, and then Mattie would see the boys leading the mule and wagon home at the end of the day with their dad drunk and passed out on top of the rubbish in the back of wagon. Once home, their mother (my grandmother) and their older sister, my aunt Jeanie, would go through the fruit and vegetables in the rubbish and pull out anything that could be salvaged. The women would cut out the rotten parts and cook meals with what could be saved.
I heard these stories and many others this past January when Uncle Maurice and Aunt Jeanie (Janice) sat and visited with Dad at his bedside during his last few days of life. A couple of the stories were new to me but most I had heard before even if that day I got to hear my aunt and uncle’s perspective of the same basic narrative. But the stories about Mattie were not new ones to me.
Mattie saw the boys on other occasions playing near the brothel. And unlike almost everyone else in the community she showed kindness. Dad told me that Mattie would invite them over to the back porch and give them sodas to drink or popsicle. And she would scold them for playing in that creek where the snakes were. In other words she cared and they recognized it and that was a rare thing.
In about a year Dad and two of this brothers were taken to the orphanage and when he was about 15 he was brought back home. While my dad was in the orphanage his father left Oklahoma for Oregon. My grandparents were divorced and my grandmother married a bigger, meaner man who was there to greet my father and his brothers when they got out of the orphanage. That didn’t work well and eventually my dad moved in with Aunt Jeanie who had moved with her husband to Fort Worth. As the years went by Dad met my mom, they married and had three children of their own. Yet Dad never forgot Mattie and her kindness.
On a trip back to Guthrie Oklahoma to visit his mother my dad went into town and drove by where Mattie’s place was. He was surprised to see it was still there. He was married now and had a family but he wanted to thank her for the kindness she had shown him so many years ago. He walked in and asked for Mattie. She was there. Of course she was much older now but she was still practicing the only line of work she knew. He asked her if she remembered him and the other boys? Did she remember giving him those cold drinks and caring enough to give him a good switching for playing in the snake infested creek? She did, vaguely, but she wasn’t feeling nostalgic or sentimental. She was interested in business and tried to turn the conversation that way. So Dad thanked her for her kindness from so long ago and left.
Dad told me these stories about Mattie once he judged I was old enough to understand. He didn’t tell me about going to see her as an adult until well after I was married and had my own family. Dad was disappointed and slightly hurt by Mattie’s reaction when he visited her later in life, but he remained eternally grateful for her earlier kindness. He repeated those childhood stories to me many times over the decades. The simple kindness of a prostitute named Mattie meant a great deal to one dirty, half-starved little boy and it still means a great deal to me.
Luke 10:25-37 (New International Version)
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[a]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
I am not a theologian and I do not claim to understand all the differences between the Jews and Samaritans in the time of Christ. I have some understanding of the historic and ethnic differences and what I do know is that Samaritans were outsiders and considered half-breeds at best who didn’t understand the corrupt form of Judaism they practiced. They were not accepted by the Jews of that time as being part of the covenant people. However, the Priest and Levite of the parable were seen as persons with religious status. Yet it was the outsider, the Samaritan, who was judged as the neighbor and if I may extrapolate, the one who acted righteously.
Mattie was a sinner and her sin was visible to all. Yet it was the prostitute, the sinner, who showed mercy to these boys. My father and his siblings would not hear the Gospel for another ten years even though they were surrounded by Churches. It is perhaps more noteworthy to observe how small the act of kindness of Mattie was and how much it impacted my dad.
Just like Mattie we are all presented with simple opportunities to extend grace and mercy to others. More often than not we are not even aware of the impact a simple act of kindness can have on a person’s life. And if a prostitute in a racially segregated time and place can extend grace and kindness to someone outside their kin-group and social community how much more can we today? Even though I never met Mattie she had an impact on my life and indirectly on the lives of many of the people my father came in contact with. I thank God for Mattie and I hope she came to trust Christ for her salvation, and I hope Dad had another chance to express his gratitude to her in heaven. If they do see one another in Heaven I know the reunion is joyous for both of them.
May the kindness of the good Samaritan and Mattie the prostitute be an example for us all.
I don’t do it enough, plain and simple. Sure, I pray before our meals, at least in a family setting. I am pretty good at praying at all the socially prescribed times and places but I don’t pray enough. I will pray when people ask for prayer like when prayer requests are communicated or when we have prayer quilts hanging in the foyer at Church, but that isn’t enough.