He was standing behind me - an elderly African man dressed for this uncomfortably hot inner-city day in a dark rumpled suit with a vest and tie. He'd spotted me at a table by the window in the cafe and had come inside.
"You busy?" he asked me.
I've been approached by strangers plenty of times. Usually, they just want directions. Sometimes they ask for money. I've even been propositioned. So I'm not an easy target.
"Yes, I am busy." I was polite, but firm. I'm a writer and an editor, and I needed to finish up a batch of edits. I'd given myself one hour, tops. But he smiled and shook his head, indicating that I'd misunderstood. Then he pulled out some crumpled papers from a black plastic briefcase. "Help," he said, pointing at my papers spread out on the table. "You correct me. English."
As I looked up at his face, I saw a depth of intelligence and kindness. I was touched by the trust he apparently had in the basic goodness of humanity. I was also touched that out of all the people in my city, something had led him to approach me for help.
I had a sudden flashback of myself at UC-Berkeley, standing at Sather Gate with thousands of other students protesting the injustices against oppressed people of the world. Now, standing right in front of me was a man who needed help. What was I going to do?
I thought of the times I'd reached out to God when I didn't know where to turn. Without fail, I'd had some kind of response to my prayer. It hadn't always been what I thought I wanted, but there'd been an answer - and sometimes the answer had come through strangers.
Once, while traveling alone in France, I contacted some friends of friends of friends. They took me in when I had no money and was out of work. I was able to give something back by staying with their daughter while they were away. Just before I left - after another kind person had recommended me for a job - I thanked the woman profusely for their generosity. I'll never forget her response. She looked at me as if I were crazy, then said something like, "You don't understand. We wouldn't just take in anybody. God brought you here."
Now I realized that God had brought this man here. I waved my pencil and motioned for him to sit down.
With the help of the scrawled notes he'd made in response to a court order, I came to understand his situation. His job as a security guard was being terminated. Each time he'd asked his employers why, they'd given a different reason - that he didn't speak English well, that he hadn't fixed a broken pipe. But he'd argued that English hadn't been a requirement, and he'd been hired as a guard, not a plumber. Now they were saying that he was sleeping on the job. He had 14 days to appeal.
I looked at him. "And you weren't sleeping on the job," I said. I already knew the answer.
"Never!" he said, his jaw held high.
Together, we worked through his written response. "You my lawyer," he joked along the way.
When we were finished, he pointed to my empty glass. "Please?"
He would have spent some of his limited funds to buy me another drink. "No thanks," I said. "I've had enough."
Then he rose to go, pressing his thin hand into my shoulder. "You pure," he said. His quiet smile reminded me of my dad.
What had passed between us was pure. I thought about his strength of purpose. He'd needed something, and he'd appealed for it in an honest and forthright way. He'd also trusted that he would be helped. I saw that God was with this man - and had probably led him many times to the place he needed to be.
"Bless you," I said. It was my way of acknowledging the divine guidance that had brought us together. I added, "I know you will have everything you need." I believe that, I thought.
He smiled and nodded. Then he left the cafe and walked off down the hot city street, toward the next place he needed to go.
... blessed is that man who seeth his brother's need and supplieth it, seeking his own in another's good.
Mary Baker Eddy
(founder of the Monitor)
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor