Two Sundays ago, at the Sheetz convenience store in the west end of Huntington, I stood in a longish line, waiting to pay for a cup of coffee and anticipating the drive back to Asheville.
Behind me was a middle-aged man who had a giant soda (“pop” as they say in Huntington) and a plastic-wrapped cinnamon roll in the other. He was of slight build, wore army-green work pants and a grey T-shirt with the word “Forgiven” printed in Times New Roman on the front, and had very thick glasses perched crookedly on his nose. Behind those glasses were eyes that couldn’t focus well; he seemed to have the same kind of “lazy eye” problem I had had as a child, but he hadn’t had the benefit of surgery to correct it.
I said something to him about how much we must want our drinks to stand in such a long line. He asked, with a broad smile and a very thick speech impediment, “Did you go to church this morning?”
I had changed into jeans and a worn-out polo shirt before leaving the church, so it wasn’t a suit and tie that prompted him to ask. I said, “Yes, I did. How about you?”
He said, “Yep, I go every Sunday.” He told me the name of the church, but I couldn’t quite understand what he said.
I did catch, though, that it was a “Bab-a-dist” church. He said, “I got saved there three years ago and bap-a-dized on a Sunday night. Quit drinkin’, too. Where’d you go this morning?”
“Fifth Avenue Baptist, downtown.”
“Been going there long?”
“About a year.”
“Was the sermon good?”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him I had preached it. I said, “It was alright. A little long, but alright.”
“You could come to my church any time you want. The preachin’ is good—but it’s long there, too. You’d be welcome, though.”
I thanked him and told him he’d be welcome at Fifth Avenue, too.
He said, “Thank you, but I can’t go anywhere else. They’s my family. Plus, I have to make the coffee. I get there early every Sunday and make the coffee. I make really good coffee, best coffee in town. Better than here.”
He said “I make really good coffee, best coffee in town” like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, Raymond, said, “I’m a very good driver.” By this time in our conversation, it was clear that my new friend, Tom, has some sort of developmental anomaly.
He also has qualities that touched and helped me:
He knows that God and his friends at church love him.
He trusts the grace of forgiveness and has leaned-in to the transforming power of mercy.
He serves, and he knows that his service matters.
He shares his faith genuinely. I felt no pressure from him, only authentic friendliness..
When he smiles, it’s with his whole being. I could see and feel his joy.
By the time Tom told me about his making the best coffee in town, I was next in line to pay for my second-class cup. I thanked him for the conversation and told him how much it meant to me.
It was, hands-down, the best sermon I heard that Sunday, the best one I’d heard in a long time, because I didn’t just hear it. I saw it.