Over the holidays my family was fortunate enough to spend a week in Florida. It was a treat and a relief to leave the Midwestern sleet and enjoy the amazing sun and warm air of the subtropics.
We made it a road trip – we loaded the kids into the minivan and began our drive. It took almost two days, and I know that sounds agonizing to many. But I like the decompression that comes from traveling through the beautiful Kentucky and Tennessee countryside, and anyways, flying with four kids is cost-prohibitive and certainly not any less stressful!
We had an easy drive down and an incredible week, but we paid for it on the way back. In a rookie move, we left the Saturday after New Year’s and found ourselves on the road with seemingly millions of people who had the same idea. The traffic made things incredibly slow and the usual six hours in Florida took almost ten. It threw off our eating schedule as well as everything else and it wasn’t until about 3:00 that we pulled into a Subway somewhere in northern Florida to get the kids a sandwich.
They were tired and hungry but otherwise holding up well. We let everyone pick out a sandwich. They love that they get “exactly what they want” at Subway, as well as their favorite – their own kind of chips. I was in the restroom and by the time I came out everyone had ordered and was sitting at a table with their food piled high but still wrapped (we were going to eat in the car to make up time). I was standing at the counter by myself.
I was starting to order when the door opened and an older man walked in. He looked unkempt and had a dirty backpack over his shoulders. He looked a little dangerous and I saw nervousness in the eyes of the counter clerk, a woman who could have been my daughter or maybe even my granddaughter. I turned back to my kids and caught my oldest son Matthew’s eye — he looked nervous and I saw my wife and the kids close ranks a bit.
The man stepped up to the counter next to me and started talking loudly into the air. He made comments about the sandwich I was ordering, but more to himself than me. “That looks so good. I want that exact same thing.” He sounded and looked a bit drunk. He smelled a bit drunk too, and definitely unwashed.
I looked away and took a couple of steps sideways unconsciously — and then I noticed myself doing it. I’d been reading Spiritual Partnership by Gary Zukav; in it he talks about how a leader works to close the distance between oneself and all others. The book rang in my head. I had literally noticed myself creating distance between myself and the man.
So, I turned back towards him and stepped forward. I said, “Yes, it looks good, doesn’t it?”
He looked up, startled. He said, “Thanks for talking to me.”
This time I was a bit startled. I just said, “Of course.” I looked right at him. Not only was he not older than me, he looked a lot younger than me. Maybe 30 or so. He had a thick beard and glassy eyes. I heard a noise behind me and turned around to see Matthew standing up nervously. The whole restaurant had gone quiet.
I turned back to the man, who spoke according to some inner logic that made more sense to him than to me. He said, “My mom died this summer. So I need to ask this manager for some food.”
I said quietly, “My mom died years ago.”
He said, “It gets easier,” and I said, “kind of.”
“Yeah,” he said.
I looked at my sandwich through the glass, piled high with veggies and meat. I turned to my kids, who were all staring at me. They had chips and sandwiches stockpiled in front of them.
I reached out to the man. “You don’t need to ask the manager for food,” I said, and handed him $20.
He looked at me with tears in his eyes. I shook his hand and started to walk away.
As I turned to go he called after me. “Sir, sir!”
I turned back around. He choked back more tears as he said, “My mom’s name. Her name was Paula.”
Hope needs help. There’s no time to lose — the time is now. We are here for a reason, I’m sure of it. Ours is a mission of leadership and service, meant to be actualized in this lifetime — this I know more than anything.
We know its call when we find ourselves clutching our wallets tighter, crossing to the other side of the street to avoid someone who looks different than we do. We know its call when we complain to the television about the wickedness all around us as we turn to yell at our kids to quiet down. We know its call when we see ourselves looking at others with envy or pity.
We know its call most of all when we hear ourselves say, “Isn’t there someone who can do something about this?”
Yes, there is. We are the someones we are waiting for. Hope needs help. Our help.
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