On the afternoon of Friday, April 9, I was in a mechanical closet in the Preschool wing of our church building.
Aside from electrical panels, the three mechanical closets each house two cooling units. I was attempting to spruce up these small closets by removing useless clutter, vacuuming, and giving the old concrete floors a quick mopping.
At some point, our office administrator, Paula, tracked me down. A young man was in the church office, and he was requesting financial assistance.
I dropped what I was doing, and listened to Paula’s initial information.
From there, I walked to the church office and introduced myself to Albert.
His short-sleeve shirt revealed an abundance of tattoos. Albert was wearing shorts, and he quickly explained his reason for being in Richmond.
Not sure if this took place today or the previous day, but Albert had visited Dr. Le at VCU Hospital. Albert showed me his legs and referenced previous skin grafts from an encounter with burning gasoline.
Periodically, Albert checks in with Dr. Le to make sure the skin grafts are healing properly. To tell you the truth, I saw nothing unusual about his legs. But, my eyes are old, and they have no expertise with skin grafts.
Then Albert explained a couple of mechanical challenges with his car. These unexpected repairs had reduced whatever funds Albert had for getting back to Jacksonville, Florida. He asked for snacks and gasoline money.
I listened, and then asked him to sit tight. Down in the Trinity Hall kitchen pantry were an assortment of prepackaged snacks and some bottled water. I found a small box and loaded it up.
When I returned to the church office, there was no Albert waiting for me. Paula told me he was in the restroom. Also, Paula shared she had given Albert a couple of face masks made by our Stitchers. He had indicated to Paula that their dogs had been nibbling on their spare masks.
A few minutes later, Albert returned, and I handed him the box of snacks and water. He seemed very appreciative.
We walked out into the lobby of the entrance to the office, and I asked Albert—“how did you end up at our church?”
Albert replied he was simply looking for a church that was open.
I said to him, “I’m not trying to be difficult, but in the past, we’ve had people stop here and at the other three churches along Forest Avenue. At each church, the people made the same request for assistance.”
Albert appeared a bit befuddled with my story telling, but he assured me this wasn’t his intent.
I asked Albert to return to his car and to follow me in the church pickup truck to the neighborhood Mobil station three short blocks away. There we would fill up his car.
On Rock Creek Road, Albert pulled in behind the pick up truck. Without interruption, we turned left on to Forest Avenue.
At the station, he lined up with a pump, and with my credit card, we had approval to start pumping gas. While the gas was pumping, the lady he was traveling with came out of the car. Albert encouraged her to show me her identification, but I declined the offer.
There were two good sized dogs in the back seat. Albert’s lady friend was very affectionate toward them. Soon, the pump stopped. The tank was full.
Albert thanked me and blessed me, and he commented, “Now, we can head out to the highway.”
They pulled back out on to Forest Avenue. He made a right turn at the stoplight in front of the shopping center, and they were gone.
On the drive back to the church, my old brain was full of questions.
Had I been snookered again?
Do people looking for assistance network with each other? Hey, that old guy over at Trinity Methodist has a soft heart, you can get a tank of gas and maybe some snacks off of him.
Albert and his lady friend gave the appearance that they had lived hard or that life had been hard on them. Was my impression wrong?
I wondered about the car—an old Saturn SUV, with 30 day Virginia license plates.
I continued to ask myself questions—is it possible to trust the story of a stranger, or will skepticism dominate my thinking?
I did confirm that a Dr. Le does work at VCU, and he is a specialist in working with burn patients. That gave me a bit of optimism, but I still had questions.
I admire the screenplay and the actresses and actors who portray the characters in the movie Steel Magnolias. This film is based on Robert Harling’s play. Ouiser Boudreaux’s character played by Shirley MacLaine is real gem.
In one front porch scene, her friends are listening in as Shelby politely informs Ouiser about meeting a man that Ouiser dated before her two failed marriages. As Ouiser listens to Shelby’s story about this man, Owen, she respond’s with a very curt and direct question to Shelby’s account—“Does this story have a point?”
Right now, I’m asking that same question to myself. Does my story about Albert, his lady friend, the two dogs, and the request for assistance have a point?
When my time comes to make the jump up to the blue yonder, I don’t expect to make the cut. But, if my luck changes, I suspect I will ask God a question about Albert.
“Hey God, do you remember that April afternoon when Albert stopped by Trinity looking for some help?” I’ll ask.
And God will look over at one of his angels and ask, “Do we have a file on Albert from Jacksonville?”
In a few seconds, the angel will answer, “That file is classified.”
I’ll look back at God, and I’ll say, “So much for transparency up here in heaven.”
God will chuckle and reply, “William, your still a wise guy.”
And he will continue, “In the Bible, at least nine times, these words are written—“love your neighbor as yourself.’’ On that April afternoon did you show love to the stranger, your brother, your neighbor, Albert?”
I will respond, “Yes, God, I did, but in all truthfulness, there was an abundance of distrust pinging in my brain the whole time.”
“So you distrusted Albert’s story, but Albert trusted that a church might be able to help him. I wonder why Albert had that trust?” God asked.
Silence overtakes me. Once again, God has me boxed in a corner. I’m fumbling for a response.
My mind was tempting me to say, “I’ll bet the answer is in that classified file,” but I didn’t.
Finally, I responded, “So, even though I distrusted Albert’s story, I still have an obligation to find a way to help him. And God, you are grounding your reasoning in an assumption that somewhere along the way, rightly or wrongly, Albert learned that churches have the capacity to help those in need. Plus, your nine scripture citations really leave me with no options.”
So to answer Ouiser’s question and my question too, this story does have a point—“love your neighbor as yourself.”
And God said, “William, even when you doubt the stranger’s story, the point of the scripture is to trust those five words.”