holy ground

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I never feel like going. It’s so much easier to not go. There are always a million reasons, some legitimate, some not so much, to ignore the need and go about my own business. And yet every single time I do, I’m changed. Yesterday was no exception.

My church opened a Care Center about two years ago, and it has become an amazing resource for our community. It welcomes families from all over Hamilton County who need assistance. The main draw is a choice food pantry, which is set up and run like a small grocery store where no money changes hands. Donations are received from local stores and individuals, and neatly arranged on shelves. A large garden called Project Eden in the back forty of the church’s property helps to supplement the produce aisle. Frozen and refrigerated items are available as well. The quality and variety of items, along with the dignity that comes from being able to make one’s own selections, make this a popular place.

It takes a small army of staff and volunteers to make this happen. The center is open to shoppers two evenings and one morning each week. Whenever I’ve volunteered there, I’ve served as a personal shopper. This role involves walking with guests through the store, helping them keep track of their allotted points (based on their family size) and assisting them with loading groceries into their vehicles. Because this ministry seeks to help more than just fill bellies, we’re encouraged to ask for any prayer requests and to offer to pray with our friends on the spot.

On any given visit, I know I will encounter the awkwardness of being on one side of a language barrier that prevents much conversation with at least a few of the guests. I don’t speak Spanish, Russian, or any of a number of other languages heard there. (My French degree has come in handy exactly zero times so far, but I keep hoping!) I confess that it is a relief when I am able to accompany a fellow native English speaker. Despite this challenge, I’ve found that kindness goes a long way. I’m amazed but by the end of each shopping trip, I’m usually able to feel a connection with each person.

And every once in a while, I meet someone who truly surprises me. These unexpected encounters make a lasting impression.

Yesterday, the last person I assisted was a man with a grey beard and an ornate silver-studded cross hanging from his neck. He looked a little rough around the edges. He walked with a limp and moved slowly toward the entrance. I imagined he’d done some hard living or seen his share of trouble in his approximately sixty-five years. By the time I met him, he was a little frustrated at the fact he’d been waiting to shop for an hour and a half in the waiting room. The ten points listed on his intake paper told me that he was likely only shopping for one. He shook my hand as I introduced myself, then threw his cane into the cart  and started pushing it through the produce aisle. Though English was clearly his first language, he wasn’t feeling very chatty. I took his lead and we got down to business.

He didn’t take any fresh items. Instead, he moved swiftly and picked out a few packages of prepared food. The ten points dwindled quickly. We parted ways at the checkout; he went to get his car while I gathered the frozen items he’d ordered. I rolled the big cart to the parking lot where he waited in his blue sedan with a handicapped license plate. I placed his bag of groceries and half-gallon of milk on the floor of the back seat. Shutting the door, I leaned on the open driver’s side window and asked how I could pray for him.

Though to this point we’d made only small talk, his face softened and he tentatively said that he had a crazy request that day. He wondered if I was open to that. I told him that I take all requests, big or small, while secretly wondering what in the world he might be about to say. In a quiet voice, he asked if I’d pray for him to find a companion. Not a romantic relationship, he clarified, just someone with whom he could go out to dinner, someone to talk to. He told me he’d been married three times before, and lived through the deaths of two of his wives. His last one had died a year ago, and he was lonely.

I couldn’t have been more surprised. His gruff exterior seemed in sharp contrast to this humble, heartfelt request. Of all the broken places in the world, it’s this one – isolation – that does me in, every time. I was shocked by his vulnerability and willingness to share his deep hurt and need with me, a mere stranger. It seemed to me far braver than the (significant) humility required to ask for help with filling his refrigerator. I was honored to have been trusted with something so close to his heart.

I closed my eyes and prayed aloud for God to meet his need, to open his eyes and bring someone into his life that would provide connection and friendship. He enthusiastically murmured in agreement as I spoke, affirming my supplication on his behalf and thanking God for how He will provide. He gratefully smiled after I said “amen,” and said goodbye before going on his way.

Time slowed down and an image flashed in my mind as I stood at his window. We had begun our morning as a team before the shoppers arrived that day with a short devotional. The center’s director had asked us to remove our shoes before we prayed, reminding us that whenever we are open and let God love others through us in that space, we are standing on holy ground.

There was no burning bush on the blacktop. But I realized that I had, in fact, landed on holy ground in that parking lot, when I least expected it. I left with a broken but full heart, humbled and inspired by my new friend’s example.

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