Surprised by Strangers

Nov. 5, 2013 • Posted in Blog

When I was a college student I spent my summers waitressing for a family restaurant in my hometown. It was the preferred place for church goers to go for midweek pies and Sunday brunch. I didn’t usually have to work on Sundays—these were the days when managers were more accommodating about such things—but one weekend it couldn’t be avoided. Instead of worshipping at church, I had to find a way to do it on the job.

Truth: I don’t remember approaching my shift with a very worshipful attitude. I think I was a little grouchy about having to give up my Sunday morning.

That morning, a party of happy women was seated in my section. I helped push tables together for the twelve, maybe fourteen, of them. They were the kind of group that is easy to serve: pleasant, kind, courteous, out to enjoy each other’s company and have a great time. They laughed a lot, and loudly. They’d just come from church. They drew me into light conversation as I took their orders, filled their glasses, and delivered their food.

These were also the days when restaurants didn’t like to do separate checks, and they didn’t automatically add a gratuity to a large party’s tab. Typically, in my experience, the larger the party, the lower the tip percentage. It seems the collective intellect of a large dining party isn’t that great at math. (Thus the reason why many restaurants calculate the number for groups now.) And I almost hate to say it in print, but maybe someone needs to hear it: The church goers tended to be the most stingy of all tippers. At least when I was waiting tables.

But this party of women was completely beyond my experience, before or since. When I delivered the check to the woman at the head of the table, she seized my hand.

“Now, honey,” she said, squeezing my fingers. “We’ve been talking about you, and we have a question.”

I laughed nervously. “All right.”

“Are you a Christian?” she asked.

“I am,” I admitted.

“We just knew it,” she said, as gleeful as if they’d guessed my birthday. “We could just tell by your sweet spirit and good attitude.”

I’m sure I blushed. Everyone was smiling and nodding and staring at me, including guests at other tables. Then there was the fact, burning in the back of my brain, that I was guilty of having a terrible attitude for having to come in on my usual day off. Maybe I was smiling, but my heart had been sour.

They pressed me into telling them about what I was doing with my life—where I was going to college, what I was studying, where I went to church, and so on. And then the woman still clutching my hand said, “Now we’d like to pray for you.”

It was an announcement more than a question, see? I couldn’t say no, and even if I had I suspect she might have held onto me and prayed anyway. She launched into a passionate prayer on my behalf—was my manager watching?—asking God’s blessing over my education and my future. Every head around the table was bowed. I closed my eyes so I couldn’t see the curious expressions of other patrons.

And when these women finished they pressed a $75 tip into my hands.

More than twenty years later I look back on this moment and still feel startled. I don’t claim to know how God works in others’ hearts. I don’t know what compelled them to display such kindness toward me. But I believe that if I had said I wasn’t a Christian they would have introduced me to Jesus on the spot, and I would have paid attention, so genuinely did these women move through their world. The happiness they brought into that restaurant on that particular Sunday was too big to keep to themselves. And it reminded me—not by shaming but by inspiring—of how I should be living as a lover of God.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be blogging about the beautiful ways that strangers’ lives intersect with ours. To launch the conversation, I’d love to hear your stories. Tell us about a time when a stranger was kind to you.

And if you haven’t already seen it, stop by my home page and check out the fascinating story of Richard Rinaldi’s photo project. Most captivating to me was the way in which simply touching strangers physically can create a sense of caring for the other person. Fascinating.

Photo credit: David Blackwell.Foter.comCC BY-ND


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