I left the house in a rush, determined to get where I was going.
High on impulsiveness (or the feeling like I was doing exactly what God wanted me to at the exact moment I was supposed to), I hurriedly packed a bag while calling mom, then my best friend, then my boyfriend to tell them all I couldn’t hang tonight because I had something to do. I’m sure I sounded manic on the phone. But I didn’t care. I had such purpose, and the purpose carried with it such urgency.
After throwing two bags in my car, I drove to the gas station at Wal-Mart.
It was 5 pm on a Friday. The gas station was packed, and cars were parked behind cars parked behind cars waiting for pumps. I started to get frustrated. I moved behind one car and the line seemed slow, so I moved again. I was about to pull out of the gas station and just go to another one on the way to my destination when I saw someone leave, so I was only one car away from gas! I turned my car off as the suburban in front of me opened their tank and started to fill.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw them. An elderly woman, probably late 70’s, holding the hand of a 5-year-old boy. She was dragging him car to car, and I could tell that she was asking for something and people were turning her away.
She knocked on my passenger side window.
“Great,” I thought, “I don’t have time for this.” But I rolled it down. “Yes ma’am?” I said.
She relayed, teary-eyed, that she needed to get back to Crestview (a town about an hour away) because her son and his wife were arrested last night for domestic violence and both were in jail. She had come for the boy, to take him home with her. She didn’t have enough gas to get home, and anything would help, she said.
Something stirred in me. I didn’t think I had any cash (I never do) but I searched desperately in my purse. I didn’t. “I’m so sorry,” I said, “I don’t have any cash.”
All too familiar with the response, the woman nodded her head in reserve and started to walk away.
I knew I had time until the car in front of me finished pumping. I knew I had a credit card that I could pay off next month. And all of a sudden, I knew that God doesn’t make any timing mistakes. That I was supposed to be there, right then. I was supposed to meet her.
I was supposed to help her.
I grabbed my credit card and opened my door. “Wait!” I yelled. “I can charge it! Where’s your car?”
She smiled big and tears came to her eyes. I followed them to their car. She began to relay how thankful she was and to retell her story. All I could manage to say was how sorry I was and what a terrible situation it must have been. I ran my card, typed in my zip code, and said, “How much do you need?”
Still crying, she was able to get out, “We have to get to Crestview. Whatever you can spare.”
And I know that ultimately these are the moments that define our humanity. And it’s not about the money, at all. It’s about hearing someone’s story, about really listening to them, about having empathy, and hoping that if you were in that position, someone would stop and be Jesus to you. It’s about actually doing something for someone else, and not just thinking about it.
“Fill it up,” I managed to get out. She screamed, “OH bless you! Can I hug you?”
We hugged. There at the Wal-Mart gas station. Two strangers. I’m sure I’ll never see that woman again.
I wept for a minute. We wept to each other. And in the embrace of a stranger in a much worse situation, I felt true compassion. I wanted to do more for her, to help her. But what else could I do? The very moment I was helping, my heart was breaking – for everything she’d now have to go through, for that little boy, and for the guilt and shame of every time I hadn’t stopped to listen to someone who needed it.
“It’s ok,” I stuttered. “People need people, you know? God bless you.”
I drove away knowing that I was where I was supposed to be. Exactly where I was supposed to be.
I know what some people will say. You can argue that she could have lied and wanted the money for other reasons. You can say that I didn’t do enough. You can say that I did too much.
The thing I’ve realized is, it doesn’t really matter because my intentions were pure. There was no real motive. And though every ‘selfless’ act is never really selfless because we gain something good from it internally, I will never regret the feeling I got watching them drive away. It is one of sadness; it is one of urgency. But it is also one of relief, because I did what I could do at that time with what I had.
May we always be surprised by the kindness of strangers, and more importantly, may we be that stranger when an opportunity presents itself.
image – Shutterstock