88: A Sobering Experience

88: A Sobering Experience

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Random Acts of Kindness

A Sobering Experience

Not for ourselves alone are we born.

~Marcus Tullius Cicero

The phantom-like figure materialized out of the darkened snowy night. I was tending the till on the closing shift at a local gas station. The snowstorm had grown in intensity since I had punched in at mid-afternoon, and had slowed business and traffic down to nothing. Only fools and those in great need ignored the storm warnings.

Just moments before the faceless shape appeared, the Greyhound bus had inched its way south on the highway, late for its scheduled stop. The passengers getting off fended for themselves two blocks away. A figure made its way toward the station out of the bus’s wake of swirling snow.

“Could you tell me where I could find the Catholic church?” he asked once inside. He wore no hat and rubbed his bare hands together, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

I directed the stranger to St. Alice Catholic Church four blocks away. Thanking me, he turned and re-entered the snowy night. I felt uneasy while I watched him disappear into the storm. He would freeze dressed like that.

What was my responsibility to the nameless stranger? I could have invited him to my house, but with a wife and small children, it seemed a risk. Surely God wouldn’t expect me to put my family at risk?

Twenty minutes later he came back out of the storm’s darkness just as he had the first time. My heart sank. Once indoors, he shook the snow off of his coat and kept moving around.

“No one home?” I asked, after a customer had left.

Melting snow had formed droplets of water on the top of his thick black hair. They ran down the sides of his face as he shivered. “Are there any other churches in town? I need to find a place to sleep for the night.”

Avoiding the question, I made small talk, trying to find out a little more about him. He told me he went by the name Sammy, that he was on his way to the Twin Cities, and that he was looking for a place to wait out the storm. “We have a two-bedroom mobile home with three small kids, but if you don’t mind sleeping on the couch, you are more than welcome to stay.” The words were out of my mouth before I realized the implications of such an offer. To my chagrin he accepted. I suggested that he could wait for me in the small café that was connected to the station. He smiled and followed me to the café’s back entry.

Now what was I going to do? How would my wife handle my impulsive invitation? I walked to the phone and called to inform her so she would not be caught off guard when we arrived home.

I chastised myself for putting my wife and children in harm’s way by inviting a perfect stranger into our home. He didn’t look like a murderer, but my prejudices and imagination haunted me. The radio had announced that even the plows had been pulled off the roads and everyone was to stay home. I had no other options.

We set out walking homeward the nine blocks. When we arrived, the kids were in bed and my wife had fixed something warm for us to eat. The three of us visited as we ate. He shared about family that he was going to visit and his hope that the priest could help him out with the bus fare. He had only enough money to get this far. He never asked us for help; instead, he thanked us for putting him up, feeding him, and giving him a warm place to sleep.

As my wife and I settled down for the night, we quietly talked about his situation and our responsibilities, deciding to trust God to help meet his and our needs. When morning came, the kids initiated him into the family by jumping up on his lap, sitting next to him and asking all kinds of questions. He seemed to enjoy the attention and their energy. We ate breakfast together, packed him a small lunch, gave him what little cash we had on hand, offered a short prayer of blessing, and sent him on his way.

A week or two later we answered a knock at our door. He was on his trip home and had stopped in for a visit. We invited him to stay, feeding him and putting him up for the night. The following morning, as we parted, we extended an open invitation to stop by whenever he was in the area.

As mysteriously and suddenly as he came into our lives, he now vanished the same way. It was years later when a gentleman we knew came up to us and said he had a message from Sammy. Seeing that we were drawing a blank, he told us of making Sammy’s acquaintance at an AA meeting he was attending while doing prison ministry. Sammy had listened to his story and heard the town that he was from. He had approached him after the meeting asking him if he knew us. Finding that he did, Sammy proceeded to tell him the story of our helping him and asked if he would deliver a letter to us.

In his letter, Sammy shared how he had made some poor decisions and was serving time in prison. It was there, when he had reached rock bottom, that he remembered how we had helped him years earlier. Our act of kindness provided a “life changing” experience for him. Now sober and living a new life, he wanted to thank us for making a difference and inspiring him to turn his life around.

That letter has served as a great reminder to us of how little things done in love can make a huge difference. We were merely sharing with him who we were, what we had, and our home. That random act of kindness sown in a difficult time became the seeds of a new beginning.

Sammy helped us to go beyond ourselves to see the dignity of each person we encounter, despite appearances or circumstances. He taught us the importance of hospitality, generosity, and opening our home to others. It was a valuable lesson.

~Michael Knuth

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