The Convenience Store Encounter June 25, 2021

Just when you think that we couldn’t be farther apart as citizens of the same country, something happens to show us how wrong we are.  Here’s a true story that is proof of that error thinking.

Near our house is a convenience store that carries a particular adult beverage I like and has the best price in town.  Last week, I went there, got the drinks I like, and walked up to the counter to pay.  Near the counter was a gentleman who looked like he’d completed his purchase.  He was dressed all in black, including a trilby hat like Frank Sinatra used to wear.

As I plunked my cans down on the counter, I realized that the man hadn’t completed his purchase. He was, in fact, in the process of deciding what lottery tickets to buy.  Concerned that I might have cut in front of him, I backed away from the counter, saying:

“Oh, I didn’t realize you weren’t done.”

“No, no,” he replied, “you go on.”

As I thanked him, he continued to look through the lottery ticket selections.  My purchases were tallied, and the transaction was complete when he suddenly says:

“I’m just coming back from the funeral of my granddaughter.”

I looked over at him, and my heart burst open with love and compassion. Now, that sort of thing might happen to you, but I tend to live more in my head than my heart.  I am skilled at keeping my tender emotions under tight control. I stared at him, my mind utterly blank.  In a strange voice, I heard myself say:

“Oh, I am so sorry!”

He went on to explain.

“She took a TikTok challenge and ended up committing suicide.”

As the reality of what he was saying penetrated my brain, my eyes filled with tears. I stood there, wanting to say or do something to fill the painful silence between us.  Finally, I remembered what I do for a living.

“I’m a minister.  Please know that I will pray for your granddaughter as well as for you and your whole family.”

“Thank you,” he said, “that would be a blessing. She was only 12 years old.”

“Oh, my God, and on Father’s Day,” I blurted out before I could stop myself.

With tears running down my face and nothing going through my head, I stood there.  I felt utterly helpless in the glare of the cold, harsh reality in which this man now lived.

Out of nowhere except our shared sense of tragedy and humanity, I moved toward him with my arms open.

“I have to give you a hug.  It’s not much, but it’s what I have to offer this minute.”

He opened his arms, and we embraced.

Stepping apart, he said:  “Now that was a blessing!”

I replied, “God bless you!” as I turned and left the store.

I had to sit in my car for a few minutes before I regained the composure to drive home.  He was still in the store when I left.

I don’t think of myself as someone who approached strangers.  True, I often strike up a conversation with others in the airport waiting area or on a plane. A casual conversation with a traveling stranger is well within my comfort zone.  But seldom do such conversations disclose anything more personal than “where are you going” and “where do you live?”   And NEVER do I hug a strange man in a convenience store! Except, apparently, when I do.

This encounter was so raw, so unexpected, that it broke through my carefully maintained zone of comfort.  It was all the more remarkable because, as you might have guessed, the gentleman and I were not the same race.  In those few moments, nothing mattered but our shared humanity.  I didn’t think about the appropriateness of what I did or worry about what he might think.  I acted out of the most vital, most compelling sense of compassion I’ve ever spontaneously felt.  I experienced, powerfully and unforgettably, the truth of what I’ve taught for years:  There is a Source of Divine Love that unites us all. It will heal us and harmonize our families, our communities, our nation, and the world if only we will let it.

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