Growing up attending a conservative Christian school during the late-1970s, I was “that girl” – the one whose divorced Mom didn’t shave; the one who wore her brother’s hand-me-downs and was often mistaken for a boy; the one who stood on the backyard chicken coop shouting obscenities. It didn’t win me many friends.

Once, after I visited the house of a carefully groomed classmate, her parents drove me home and informed my mother that I was never to play with their daughter again. In front of me.

While I am still active in church and cherish my faith, the pain of such shunning ran deeply through my veins well into adulthood. So, 15 years ago, when my oldest child, Judah, began preschool near our house in midcoast Maine, I was determined to be more accepting.

On the first parent visitation day, one particularly rambunctious 3-year-old, Ben, seemed to flit from activity to activity, knocking over toys and disturbing kids. His mom, Beth, apologized and laughed, but she was clearly embarrassed – and exhausted. Having a high-voltage child myself, I sympathized, and we quickly became friends. So did Judah and Ben.

Beth and I often took the boys for alternating play-dates, which required frequent intervention when “playtime” turned into “pushtime.” After one such get-together, 3-year-old Judah closed his eyes at bedtime and prayed, “Dear Jesus, please help Ben not to hit and scratch me anymore. Amen.”

I was so touched by Judah’s burgeoning empathy – and faith – that I wrote his words in a baby journal of memorable moments. What I did not do was to call Beth and tell her that Ben was no longer welcome in our home. For one, I cared too much about her to do such a thing. For another, Christ called his followers to turn the other cheek. So, within the boundaries of reason, why not his little followers?

“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?” Jesus asked in Matthew 5:46-47, the same chapter in which he talks about cheek turning. “And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?”

Like many kids, Ben had a hard time controlling his emotions and expressing his feelings, but Judah was never in danger. The only person at risk was Ben, who was later diagnosed with a developmental disorder that impaired his ability to communicate and make friends.

The road ahead was complicated for Ben and his family. Over the years, they faced tough decisions as they navigated educational choices – first homeschooling, then attending public school part time, then full time by eighth grade. Ben’s days included physical therapy, counseling and extra intervention. But I didn’t realize how lonely that road was until several years later when Beth, who remains one of my dearest friends, introduced me to an acquaintance as “the only mom in preschool who invited Ben over to play.”

Too often we are so concerned about protecting our own kids that we love only those who easily show love back and greet only our “own people.” In contrast, real love embraces everyone – hairy legs, hand-me-downs and indecencies included. That’s the kind of love Christ showed, and he encourages his followers to live out that love by including people who are often excluded.

Oh, and Ben? I could not be more proud if he were one of my own little ducklings. Today, Ben is a bright, sensitive, caring young man who, when asked for permission to share his story, requested that it focus on his personal achievements – how he has learned to be kind and to communicate and to be comfortable with himself and others – rather than his academic ones. Considering that Ben has interned for a college program partly funded by NASA, is graduating in the top of his high school class and has been accepted to one of the country’s top liberal arts colleges, that’s saying a lot.

But what I want to say even more is how much Ben has enriched our lives, something we would’ve missed had we not taken the time to get to know him.

Meadow Rue Merrill is a midcoast writer, mom and church member who writes a regular column about faith at: