For the incidents I recount here, I have changed the names of the people involved for the sake of discretion.
I was walking through the small North Central Alabama town of Jasper, when a woman and her young teenage daughter stopped in a battered old pickup truck to see if I wanted a ride somewhere. I told them I was just going to the library, so they hauled me in. As we talked about what I was doing, the woman, Karen, said she was going to talk to her husband and, if he agreed, would be pleased to have me stay the night with them. She got my cell number. Turned out her husband was quite enthused about it. Later that afternoon, they came to pick me up. I crawled into the bed of the truck and talked with them through the window of the cab as we went to their house.
The husband, Earl, was excited about my trip. Soon enough we pulled up to their home, a ramshackle trailer by some woods. Their daughter, Tammy, and two young sons, Billy and Joseph, ran out to greet me like a long lost uncle. Pretty soon Earl’s brother, Edgar, came over and we engaged in the amusement of the night – shooting an old .22 rifle at paper targets on trees. Tammy preferred the shotgun, as it was easier to hit the target. I will confess I was a tad nervous about what I had gotten into, but I told myself that I was in God’s hands and that He would deliver me nowhere He did not intend me to be (My top priority was to accept any reasonable hospitality or interaction offered, as I was convinced that God would teach me much of what I was to learn on this journey through my interaction with those I encountered along the way). While the evening recreation was peculiar, my new friends had no harm in them. Edgar had recently mustered out of the Army – less than a full hitch, but I did not ask details on that.
Throughout that evening – and the entire three days I stayed with them – Earl and Edgar regaled me with wildly implausible tales of their accomplishments and derring-do. For example, Edgar claimed he had won three Congressional Medals of Honor in Iraq, but did not accept any of them. Absurd, but they were completely serious. I kept quiet, figuring God wanted me to listen to the people He put along my way. Throughout my stay, they treated me as if I was a visiting king, and went to great lengths to make sure I was both comfortable and entertained.
The daughter, Tammy, vacated her bedroom that night to sleep on the floor so I could have a bed. I tried to defer, but when I did she was honestly horrified that I would think she would allow me to sleep on the floor. I was loathe to offend their hospitality.
The next day we talked and watched some movies from their DVD collection. Earl and Karen were a bit bitter towards Christians. They had been treated shabbily by their own denomination and – to my horror – said they had tried a Catholic Church, but were told by the priest early on that they were going to hell because of Earl’s dalliance with American Indian spirituality. I continue to hope that was hyperbole, but it left them both living an Indian spirituality and regarding God as best they could. I spoke to them of Christ and the authentic welcome they should have received by any who lived their Christianity properly. They told me that I was the only Christian they had ever known that treated them like real people…and Earl decided I must be a great shaman (an Indian mystic) and that what I said about Christ was true rather than what others had. Thank God for that, at least.
They got very excited because they wanted to take me to a karaoke bar that they sometimes went to, but had not been at for a few months. After I agreed, I overheard them asking to borrow $40 from Edgar to finance the outing. I took a walk in the woods to gather myself and choke back the tears so they would not know I had heard. We went the next night. Edgar watched the kids. Though I don’t care much for drink these days (as I did when I was young), I always like to have a beer to start if I am with people so they are comfortable and know I am not a religious scold. So I had a beer and then cokes. They were having a wonderful time and seeing people who they had not visited with in a while. It was marvelous and raucous.
The next day I had to move on. Before I left, I gave them a Rosary and explained how to use it. They were touched – and Earl went and got a small medicine bag to give to me to collect various things along my way. He insisted on giving me a ride to a road that would get me well on my way again. As we drove, he begged me to accept a .22 pistol to use as protection, but I was adamant that, for this journey, while I was ever prudent, I would trust only to God for protection – and that if I went beyond that, then I would be subject to harm. He actually cried, but accepted my decision. At a crossroads before a set of hills, we parted.
I often told the politicians and officials I advised that people just want someone to be their authentic voice, to keep faith and be true. I called my dear friend, Judge Steve McGlynn (who sometimes comments here) and told him I had been wrong – that much of it was more fundamental than I had thought. Many people just want to be noticed. Our bureaucratic state has given people a number and an officious social worker to care for their needs – and taken away their name. God always calls each of His children by name. The overblown stories, the great grace they showed me…all was an effort in an anonymous world to establish that their lives had meaning, to recapture a little dignity. My new friends could easily be dismissed as redneck rubes, the sort that many people would turn their nose up and not give a second look at. To my very deep shame, before I spent time with them, they were the sort of people I would not have given a second look at.
It was an emotional few weeks as I contemplated what had happened – and thanked God for showing me what an arrogant ass I was. What was even more horrible was that, until then, I had not even suspected that there was such snobbery in my makeup, even though it had been there all along. I prayed that the Lord would make me aware of those faults in me that were so well hidden that they were hidden even from me – and to see myself as I am, then to be a sign of His hope to all I encountered. The gulf between the greatest and the meanest of us in this world is merely an inch compared to the gulf of millions of miles between the holiest of us and God. If we are miserly in doling out the love and compassion to others that God has given us in such abundance, how can we expect Christ to say anything to us but, “Depart from me; I never knew you.” I still get misty when I contemplate this – and pray that the Lord will be kind enough to quickly show me such deep character defects in myself and correct them.