The Saints on Damnation Island

Damnation Island Today it’s the upscale Roosevelt Island, but in the 19th century, this little patch of land in New York City’s East River was a two-mile stretch of unthinkable cruelty. Blackwell’s Island, as it was known then, was a conveniently isolated place to warehouse the city’s undesirables. The island’s own natural rock provided the material needed for the construction of two prisons, a lunatic asylum, a charity hospital, an almshouse and a work house, among other scattered buildings.

Over the years, thousands of people populated these institutions: criminals, prostitutes, the disabled, the old and feeble, the mentally ill. Men, women, teens, adolescents, children and babies all lived there. And far too often they died there as well—from disease, starvation, ill treatment, the cold, suicide.

~~~

Do you ever think about such people? Do you ever wonder who they were and what their lives were like? I do. I think about them a lot. Kind of like a scientist on an archeological dig, I imagine tunneling through time and finding layer upon layer of nameless, faceless people who were outcasts when they were alive and quickly forgotten after death. Lost to obscurity, some might say. Just lost, as though they never were.

~~~

In her book, Damnation Island, Stacy Horn relates a vignette that made me pause in my reading. Picture this: In an enclosed pavilion by the river bank, a pastor is conducting a baptismal service for some of the babies born in the maternity hospital on the Almshouse grounds. The mothers and babies, along with the pastor, are gathered around the baptismal font. It’s a summer evening and a gentle breeze from the river is floating in through the open windows. With the cool and refreshing air washing over them, the pastor and women stand “clutching their Bibles, earnestly praying.”*

Who knows but maybe in this moment—holding their babies and their Bibles and feeling the breeze on their skin—they’re almost glad to be alive. And maybe too, though they know they are society’s castoffs, in this moment they can believe that the God to whom they pray is both able to see them and is listening to their prayers.

~~~

The pastor, Reverend William Glenny French, ministered to the people on Blackwell’s Island from 1872 to 1895. Day after day, Pastor French walked the length of the island, visiting the sick, the poor, the imprisoned. Sometimes he handed out oranges and candy bought with his own money. He conducted worship services, he held the hands of the dying, he prayed with those who came to him for whatever encouragement he could offer. He initiated the baptismal services to let those young mothers know they were neither forsaken nor forgotten. He also created and worked tirelessly on expanding a few libraries on the islands, since those who were literate were always begging for books.

Something tells me that some of those folks had minds that were eager to be fed, souls that were longing to be nourished, hearts that yearned for kindness, even love. Something tells me they were human, created in the image of God.

~~~

Jesus told his disciples that when he was hungry, they fed him; when he was sick, they took care of him; when he was in prison, they visited him. The disciples were puzzled. When? they asked. When did we serve you in this way?

Jesus responded that when they served the very least of his followers, they were serving him. **

~~~

Some would call a man like William French a saint. He was. And part of his goodness was in knowing that he wasn’t the lone saint on Blackwell’s Island. He knew that Christ Himself lived in the hearts of the believers who, for whatever reason, found themselves there.

While the rest of New York might have seen these people as worthless outcasts, nameless creatures coasting the downward slope toward a pauper’s grave and oblivion, Pastor French saw them for what they were: people with souls of eternal worth, people loved by the God who created them, men and women who were destined to one day be the pillars of heaven, joined to Christ the cornerstone.

~~~

I suppose I think so often of long-ago lives because I know that I too will eventually be lost among those layers of time. I’ll be forgotten, as though I were never here. Maybe you realize that about yourself as well. And it seems a pretty pitiful outcome to all the years of striving. But the thing is, we will be forgotten by people, but not by God. Never by God.

The world’s story and God’s story have two very different endings. We may be lost to history, but not to eternity. You, me, the saints of Blackwell’s Island—the Lord lifts us up from all the forgotten places and makes of us the very stuff of forever.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child
And have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.
Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands.”

Isaiah 49:15-16, NASB

~~~

* Stacy Horn, Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad & Criminal in 19th Century New York (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2018), p. 176.

** Matthew 25:34-40

Cindy’s Story: I Am Who I Am

Even those who are outwardly successful often inwardly lack a sense of worth. So it was with my friend Cindy Sproles—novelist, ministry co-founder, conference director and so much more. The sense that we aren’t good enough can be a nagging lie that follows us relentlessly. For Cindy, the turnaround came when she realized her worth is ultimately found in the Great I Am. Here’s Cindy’s story…

I’m nothing special. That’s the lie I fight daily.

I’ve often wondered where that lie originated. My childhood was wonderful. There was never any abuse or brow beating. My folks were super parents, so it befuddles me, where this lie developed.

Maybe it came from being an “almost” only child. Twelve years separated my sweet brother from myself, and he was my hero when I was little. I never understood why my brother felt it necessary to marry and move away.

Perhaps it stemmed from having a multi-talented mom – an innovative, do-it-yourselfer, creative and determined to make things work. It was not uncommon for teachers to ask me to participate in things, so they could utilize Mom’s talents. My skills and abilities weren’t enough to land the honor on my own.

It could have been that, no matter how hard I tried, second place seemed my best. So much so, my high school track coach dubbed me Consistently Second Cindy – something that did nothing for my already floundering self-esteem.

I married in my early twenties, and when my husband divorced me and married another, I once again found myself living up to that title, Consistently Second.

It’s funny what happens to us when the cards are down. We can choose to play or call ourselves out. When I found myself a mom of two babies and divorced, I had to play. Despite the lie that plagued me, I went to my knees and asked God something simple.

“Lord, I’m not asking you to fix this. I’m just asking for the strength to open the blinds each day and see the sun. If I can see you in the day, then I can figure this out.”

Over the next 32 years God continued to give me the strength to open the blinds. He brought me into a relationship with a wonderful husband, who taught me I was worthy of love. He walked with us as we raised a blended family, sorted through the rough patch of one prodigal, and an adult child who hit upon tough times. He guided us with a son with disabilities. You name it, God lassoed us and pulled us through.

Still, with all these blessings, I never felt worthy or special. Was I so self-consumed that I couldn’t see my own self-worth?

I wasn’t self-consumed, I just didn’t believe. Not in God – of course I believed in God, but I didn’t believe Him. And it took a walk in the desert of life to finally make the connection. For a time, it was like God had turned His back on me. I walked through this hot, sandy desert of emptiness. It was as though I could see the oasis in the distance, but one foot was nailed deep into the sand and all I could do was walk in circles, catching a glimpse of relief with each lap.

It took this time of reflection to let go of the lie that was tight in my fist. That’s when the realization took hold and I learned to believe God had made me special and worthy.

I began to seek after my own dreams. Writing was always a love, but nothing I’d considered a passion until a minister friend read some of my work and took the step he knew I’d never take on my own. He signed me up for a writers’ conference and paid for me to attend.

I attended with only a few little pieces I’d written for my children, but once the door opened to the conference, amazing things flooded in. Authors, agents, and publishers took notice. My work was rough, but they saw something. They saw heart. Desire. Passion.

After I returned home, I spent some quiet time with God, having this conversation:

“Lord, you’ve strengthened me through the years. Helped me open the blinds. What do I do with this writing? There’s so much to learn.”

“Then learn.”

“But, what about. . .”

“About what? I’ve strengthened you over the years. Prepared you. You simply have to believe me.”

That day, I believed God had a plan. That He’d gifted me.

Consistently Second Cindy grew into the gifts God had given her and what I found was an amazing success. Not just in my writing and publication, but success within myself.

The question was not, did I believe in Christ, rather it was DID I BELIEVE HIM?

I’ve learned over time that I am who I am. Always worthy. Always special. And though my writing career began later in life, the passion of a loving God solidified a fearful, seemingly unworthy gal into a grateful, truth-seeking woman.

I still have days when the lie creeps up on me, but when I believe the Great I Am, then I am who I am and it’s good.

Cindy Sproles Cindy Sproles

A Voice in the Bells

bellsFor a number of years, I lived in Minneapolis where I worked as an editor for Decision magazine. Many afternoons at the 2:45 break, I’d take a walk through nearby Loring Park. A pretty little park with a small lake at its center, it was a good place to go and clear my mind toward the end of the workday.

One October afternoon in 1990, I walked along the paths that were strewn with leaves. The trees were almost bare now and another harsh Minnesota winter was closing in. I kept my eyes lowered and felt my shoulders hunch against the chilly air.

Inside, I felt as bleak as the landscape. My 20s had been years of loss, including the death of my mother and several failed relationships. Now I was 30 and still living alone, far from family. Being single at my age, as well as geographically isolated from loved ones, certainly wasn’t what I had dreamed of for my life.

To make matters worse, I was in love with someone outside of work. No one knew, not even the man himself, who certainly didn’t love me in return.

The only thing loving this man did for me was to make me feel even more alone and unlovable than I felt when I met him, and that’s saying something because I’d already spent the decade of my 20s riding the elevator down to the bottom floor of self-contempt. I had no idea there was a sub-basement where things could be even darker, but on that October day in Loring Park in 1990, I was there. I was tired of grief and tired of loneliness, and yet both weighed on me so heavily my bones ached.

As I walked along the path, something interrupted my thoughts. The bells in the Basilica across the street began to chime. One, two, three times they rang, indicating the time was three o’clock. But it wasn’t the time that mattered to me, it was the very real sense in that startling moment that the bells were something more than bells, they were the voice of God, breaking into my loneliness and reminding me that God loves me. As their echo faded, I felt the heaviness lift. I distinctly sensed the otherness of God breaking into the ordinariness of my life, simply to comfort me.

I looked up at the bell tower and decided the next day I’d come out to the park at lunchtime to hear the bells strike the hour at noon. If the bells were speaking of love, I wanted to hear them ring not just three times but twelve.

The next day was a bit warmer as I settled myself on a bench not far from the Basilica. It was a few minutes before noon and, with the church behind me, I looked out over the park and waited. At last, slowly and heavily the bells began to toll, calling out the hour. I counted along, savoring each chime. One, two, threenine, ten, eleven. They rang twelve times, but they didn’t stop. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. They went on ringing until, in my wonder and confusion, I lost count. I stood and turned and gazed up at the tower as the bells rang on and on, calling out God’s love over the city, over the park, over me.

Maybe the bells had simply gotten stuck. Maybe some workers needed to keep the bells ringing while they evaluated them. Maybe the extended chorus celebrated some church holiday I didn’t know about. Maybe.

All I know is that it happened when I needed it to happen. Almost three decades later, I still marvel at the timing and the message, and I take comfort in knowing God’s love for me is far greater than I can count or think or imagine.

Janine’s Story: Finding God in the Dark

When Janine Hughes and I met in 2001, we became fast friends, as did our then 4-year-old daughters. In 2004, my family moved out of state, but our friendship continued. I walked with her, though from a distance, through all of the trauma she describes in her story. A picture from her August 12, 2012 baptism sits on my desk. Here is Janine’s story…

As an atheist for most of my adult life, my question was always: “Does God exist?” I came to understand that I was asking the wrong question. The question is: “Does God’s love exist?” It was through suffering that I found the answer.

In September 2009, my husband Bert was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. One morning we were a typical family of four living in suburban Minnesota, and by that afternoon we were a devastated family facing the imminent loss of husband and father. My entire world shifted and a terrible darkness began to close in.

As soon as Bert was diagnosed, we found ourselves surrounded by a community of loving, caring, supportive people. Friends, family, people from the school—even people we really didn’t know—brought meals, took our children to various activities, brought care packages.

Endless cycles of chemotherapy prolonged Bert’s life. We celebrated Thanksgiving 2010 thankful for more than a year together as a family. The next day my brother Dave died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of 56.

Bert died in April 2011. I found myself surrounded by an ever-growing network of love and support. The church we had joined embraced me, family and friends continued to be there for me and the children. It was in the weeks following Bert’s death I realized I was surrounded by God’s love. God’s love is real. And if God’s love is real…..I opened my heart and God took over.

Thanksgiving 2011 my life exploded again. My eldest sister Mary was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. We were dealing with that crisis and her impending death, when in January 2012 my seventeen-year-old son Sam died by suicide.

The memories of that day are muted, repressed even, as necessary. But I remember calling people and people coming over.  All through the day, people sat with me and my daughter for hours. Long stretches of silence were occasionally broken by quiet questions, crying and prayer. Left alone, I would have been curled up in the fetal position, surrendering to despair. But that group of people surrounded me and held me upright. God’s love surrounded me.

Two weeks later my sister died. I lost four family members in fourteen months.

When people ask me how I got through that time of loss, I tell them, “God. And God’s people.” It is only by God’s grace and the love and support of his people that I am here today to tell my story. It was in my very darkest hour that I first saw the evidence of God’s love. He loved me through the hands and feet and voices and embracing arms of others. The world is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with God’s love.

After almost eight years, I am still grieving and processing my losses. I miss my loved ones, especially my son. Sometimes I feel great sorrow, and sometimes I harbor doubts. But through the experience of great loss, I realized I didn’t have to prove the existence of God, because he had proved his love to me.

Is God’s love real? Absolutely. I know because I experienced it, and God continues to make his presence known to me day by day. To debate the existence of God is empty rhetoric. In my darkest hour, he bypassed intellectual arguments and invaded my life with his love. The real good has come into my life and there’s no going back. I’m so thankful there’s a God of love and mercy so that I can look past the pain to something greater—to hope, mercy, grace, forgiveness, comfort, peace, and so much more.

Janine baptism 2

Janine’s baptism, 2012

Cecil’s Story: A Whole Heart

Getting married and having children are fundamental desires of the human heart. Family, as they say, is what makes a house a home. For most people, life slips naturally onto this path. For others, the journey isn’t so easy. My friend Cecil Stokes is one who waited years for God to patch the hole in his heart. Healing began with a child’s words. Here’s his story:

I had wanted to be married since I was 12 years old.  Not very typical for a guy, most would say.  In high school, I was playfully voted “Most likely to be married by sophomore year in college.”  Those days came and went. There was a hole in my heart.

But I had God’s promises.  Near the end of my college career, I heard a direct word about my future.  There was a large hill near my dorm and I often drove to the top of that hill for my prayer time. I just felt closer to God overlooking the city.  One night, I heard him tell me I would have a son. I saw this beautiful baby boy in my mind and I was satisfied.

Later in my 20s, I again went higher.  I took a prayer weekend on a mountain retreat and God confirmed again that I would be the father of a son.  In my 30s, I wondered what was wrong with me as almost all of my friends married and began families.  I tried to ease the pain with work, friends and travel.

~~~

Late in my 30s, I was on a trip with one of my buddies and sure enough, God spoke to me again from the mountain. This time he was more specific.  He said I would be like Joseph and have a son that was not mine biologically.  I had always wanted to adopt and mostly dated women who wanted to adopt so it made complete sense.

When I reached my 40s, I began to ask God if I could adopt on my own and I heard him say no. Then when a relationship ended with the woman I thought was perfect for me, I asked again.  I heard yes!  But after all those years, I needed confirmation.  I buried my face into the floor and asked again and I heard yes.  Guttural sobs wet the carpet.

But this was too big. I needed a sign. For the next four Sundays in a row, I received signs through my pastor’s sermons, books I was reading, the Bible and a speaker at my church.  I knew it was a go.  I looked up the information to adopt from foster care in my city and there was an orientation class the next day with one opening left.  I signed up. Is this how God would fulfill His promise and fix my aching heart?

~~~

After seven months of classes, books and interviews, I had my foster care license and waited for a child.  A few options crossed my path but I did not hear the voice I was waiting to hear.  Then I received an email with the photo and background of a small eight-year-old boy.

He had been abused in every way, taken from his birth parents and separated from his siblings.  He was then tossed through 10 different foster placements in three years, learning every three to four months that he wasn’t wanted anymore.

I asked that I be submitted as a permanent placement for him and was rejected because his last two “permanent” placements called to have him removed after three months.  But God whispered that he was mine.  So I asked to write a letter to the decision makers and while that was unheard of, I was told I could.  So I wrote to them my plan for his life.

The next day I was sitting in the head office being interrogated.  The meeting ended with a statement every child deserves to hear: “Nobody has fought for this child in his entire life and you are fighting for him without even meeting him.”  He arrived two days later just as a massive summer storm passed and the sun broke through the clouds (literally and figuratively).

~~~

I knew in a moment he would be my son forever and truly, and he always had been— on every hill and mountaintop experience and through the long, dark valleys— we just hadn’t known each other.  He tells me now he knew it too the first time I hugged him; he said no one had ever hugged him like that before.

As I look back now, those first few weeks were a whirlwind.  He started second grade in less than three weeks and I probably attempted every “father/son” moment within the first month—playing baseball, tossing around the football, putting together model cars.  I made it a routine that each night before bed, we cuddled up on the couch and said 3 Blessings before we prayed.  It was hard for him in the beginning but that was exactly why I knew we had to do it; he needed a paradigm shift.

We had some really hard days, filled with the examples we were warned about in foster care classes.  I was not the perfect dad and made my share of mistakes.  Then one night, I sat on the side of his bed as I tucked him in.  I sang to him and rubbed his back.  As I said good night and started to leave, he sat up and said, “You know, I came here with a broken heart, and something tells me you had one too.  But now, together, we have a whole heart.”

That night, salty tears caressed his head as I rocked him close. He wasn’t the only one who had been looking for home. And he wasn’t the only one who’d found one.

I was 42 years old when my prayer was answered and God allowed me to become a father.

Cecil and Boone

Cecil and Boone Stokes

Kevin’s Story: Leaves

My friend Kevin Spencer knows what it is to face the daily dreariness, and sometimes horror, of a life behind bars. Beginning in 1987, he spent seven years in the Florida Department of Corrections. From that dark time he has many stories to share, but one sticks out to me as a beautiful example of the profound simplicity of God’s presence in one man’s place of pain. Here is Kevin’s story…

                                                                           ~~~

I stood in a long shuffling line of inmates that slowly approached the prison mail room. The mail room was actually a separate building on the grounds of the Florida Department of Corrections. We were lined up in front of a small window where the officer assigned to handle our mail read, censored, and dispensed our contacts with the outside the world.

I was in prison, a victim of my own stupidity. It was Fall, the season which throughout my life had been my favorite time of year. Now, my spirits were at rock bottom. I had been here a little over a year, and despite my Lord’s promise to me that I would go home, I could see no end to my incarceration. I was stuck here. I missed home. I missed the changing of the seasons.

In central Florida, the seasons don’t change. Okay, that’s unkind. There actually are two seasons in Florida: The brutally hot green leaf season, and the not so warm brown leaf season. Here at the prison, we were currently in the transition between the two. I so missed seeing the leaves change color. It was bad enough seeing the outside world through a double chain-link fence topped with barbed razor wire, but to watch the distant Ocala National Forest just slowly turn from green to olive to brown was even more depressing.

My heart was empty. I didn’t think God was listening to me anymore, but as I stood in the line, I silently prayed again: “Please Father, I just want to go home. Please.”

Finally, I got to the mail window. I was fortunate in that my dad wrote to me almost every day. Sometimes just a couple of lines. Usually some clippings from the local paper about life at home in Raleigh, and later Lincolnton, North Carolina. Dad was great at writing. And the result was that I was in the mail line every day, and the mail officer knew me perhaps better than she knew some of the other inmates.

She looked up as I approached, and I saw something in her face as she saw me. She motioned me to step to the side door. This had never happened before, but I did as I was told.

She opened the side door, and told me: “I can’t let you have this, but I’m going to let you see it.” She handed me a large manila envelope. It was from my dad. When I opened it, out slid a handful of red, yellow, and orange leaves that Dad had evidently picked up in the yard. Knowing how much I missed the seasons, he had decided to send them to me. My eyes welled up as I fingered the leaves for a second, and I smiled at the thought of my dad walking through the yard picking them up like a little boy.

“I’m sorry I can’t let you have them,” the officer said. I struggled to keep back the tears and mumbled something about it being okay. And fingering the leaves one last time, I handed them back.

“Thank you,” I told her.

“You’re welcome,” she replied. And then, as she shut the door, she said, “Watch your feet.”

Glancing down automatically as the door clicked shut, I saw at my feet a bright scarlet Sugar Maple leaf. She had dropped it there for me. A small kindness. I scooped it up and stashed it in my Bible. I didn’t get to go home that day, but God had brought a small piece of home to me. I carried that leaf in my Bible until the day I was finally released. It served as a reminder that God’s love was with me even there in prison, and that He was listening to my prayers always.

Some Drops and Dews

 

And what the men of this world miss,
The drops and dews of future bliss.
~ Henry Vaughan, “The Revival”

~~~

Oswald Chambers was a preacher whose ministry took him around the world in the early part of the 20th century. More than 100 years after his death in 1917, he remains well known for his teaching, as his words were compiled posthumously into some 50 books by his wife, Gertrude. His most popular book is My Utmost for His Highest.

 ~~~

At the outset of his ministry, Oswald Chambers lived through years of spiritual dryness and inner turmoil, an experience he himself described as “dark moods of the mind” and “this dark strife.” Though he was a sought-after preacher as well as a teacher at his alma mater, The Gospel Training College in Dunoon, Scotland, he almost gave up on his faith. But God wouldn’t let him go.

In his inspiring biography of Chambers, author David McCasland tells of three times God spoke to his fledgling servant during this turbulent time.

Once, Chambers was sitting in his room at the college late at night when his dog Tweed jumped in through the open window, put his head on Oswald’s knee, and looked up into his eyes. Then, just as suddenly, he was gone.

A second time Oswald was in his room with the door open when the baby boy of the house padded in barefoot, in his pajamas and ready for sleep. He marched up to the room’s occupant, said, “Mr. Chambers, I loves you,” then turned and went back to his bed.

Finally, while Chambers was teaching at a Christian gathering, a mentally disabled girl walked down the aisle toward him and laid a small bouquet of wilted flowers on the table. With the flowers was a note: “With love from daft Meg.”

As McCasland describes it, “Each event seemed to be a tender touch from the Father conveying His presence and love.” *

Notice the simplicity of these moments, and yet they had a profound impact on Chambers. He was able to move beyond his dark night of the soul and into a place of peace with God and complete trust in him.

I believe God pours into each of our lives evidence of his love, these sometimes small drops and dews of future bliss. I want to be a story collector, one who collects these stories and shares them here with you.

In the weeks ahead, I will begin by sharing the love notes found in an autumn leaf, a child’s words, and the bells of a basilica. I trust these three stories are the first of many. You may send your stories to me at anntatlockblog@gmail.com. They should be somewhere between 500-1,000 words. I can’t guarantee publication, but I do promise to try to read and respond to every story that lands in my mailbox. I enjoy nothing more than reading stories about God’s love.

* McCasland, David. Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God. Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers, 1993, p. 84.

Those Who Inspire No Envy

In 2016, God sent me back to school. Not to earn another master’s degree or a doctorate, but to learn what I couldn’t learn in any other way. He placed me as a cashier in the university’s food court.

~~~

I suppose I really began to learn the lesson on the day I went to the dentist. At the end of the checkup he told me I needed two crowns and a root canal. I left the dental office feeling dazed, like I’d been hit on the back of the head. Fixing my teeth would cost many thousands of dollars, and I didn’t have—nor could I ever conceive of having—that amount of money.* What happens, I wondered, when a person doesn’t fix her teeth? Do they just rot and fall out?

From there, I went on to work. The first person to greet me when I walked in was Angelo, one of the men who stocks the packaged food and drinks. He offered me a big smile, and when he did, I noticed what I hadn’t noticed before. Many of his teeth were missing. Those that remained were chipped and broken.

When a person grows up financially secure like I did, she thinks everyone goes to the dentist to have their teeth fixed. But when I looked at Angelo’s smile, I realized—no, not everyone. What was normal to me as a child is to some an unattainable privilege. That day, I didn’t sympathize with Angelo; I empathized. I understood him, because we were in the same place.

~~~

The people I work with at the food court aren’t seeking success. They are mostly trying simply to survive. Many work two jobs; some work three. Some work seven days a week with no days off. Some work day shifts and night shifts both, leaving their night job in the morning to go to their day job. A number are ill with diseases like diabetes and kidney failure. Some are crippled with arthritis. They come to work in pain and go home in pain.

These are the people no one envies and no one aspires to be like. Who dreams of becoming a sixty-year-old cashier whose legs are bowed with rheumatism? Who yearns to be a single mother who works at the food court and at Burger King both, yet still can’t make ends meet? Who hopes to grow up to become a middle-aged stock boy with broken teeth?

~~~

I love these people. Every day they greet me with smiles, with hugs, with enthusiastic cries of “Hi, Miss Ann!” While we work we grab a few minutes here and there to talk, swap stories, laugh. While there are the usual personality conflicts, I more often see kindness and encouragement. Once, to my surprise, Miss Merle threw her big arms around me and gave me a smothering hug. She just wanted to tell me she loves me.

~~~

Merle is one of the kitchen workers. She stands all day at a counter making sandwiches. She isn’t young and she isn’t small, so she’s asking a lot of her feet. One thing I’ve learned about Merle is that she loves Jesus heart and soul. I once went into the ladies bathroom to wash my hands, and as I stood at the sink I heard music coming from one of the stalls. The next thing I knew, Merle burst out of the stall holding her phone and singing along to a gospel song. She shimmied down to the sink where she spent the next few minutes dancing and praising God, singing at the top of her pipes about the day she would be home in glory. I listened happily, delighted to be her captive audience. It was one of the most inspiring concerts I’ve ever attended, performed by a solitary black woman in the bathroom of a university food court. It seemed even a momentarily holy place, filled with joy.

~~~

Kevin is another one of our stockers. He doesn’t talk much. In fact, if you didn’t know better, you might think he was mute. When I ask him to bring us something from the supply room, he merely nods, one small lift of his head. Though he doesn’t talk about it, the large silver cross he wears around his neck offers an inkling as to his beliefs. Sometimes his apparent reticence gives way to quiet acts of kindness. Last Valentine’s Day he came to work bearing a huge bouquet of roses. It wasn’t meant for anyone, but for everyone. That is, he wanted to make sure all his female co-workers got a flower on Valentine’s Day. No one was to be forgotten. I was touched when he laid a rose—without a word—by my register, though he appeared and disappeared so quickly I couldn’t even thank him.

~~~

Sherrie is one who works two jobs. She spends the week making pizza and pasta and on the weekend she works at Costco. Except for holidays, she has no days off. How, I wondered, does anyone work seven days a week without having a single day of rest to look forward to? I for one would soon drop from physical and mental exhaustion. And so I asked her, “Sherrie, how do you work so much?” And without a moment’s hesitation she told me her secret in two amazing words: “God’s grace.”

~~~

When I’m at the food court, I look around and see the people that most of society deem invisible. They are just too far down on the social stratum even to be noticed. But I know this much is true: In this place of struggle and obscurity where no one wants to be, God is here. Grace is at work. Hope is real. And the love of God elevates even the least of us to a place of glory.

* The Lord later provided the full amount for the root canal, for which I am continually thankful.