The other day I was doing some work in a coffee shop near campus when an older man came in. I didn’t pay much attention to him, but the table next to me had apparently been watching him while he was outside. He had apparently been approached by a younger man prior to entering – a man that they said was “definitely not from around here.”
While the other table kept an eye on the older man, he made his order and moved aside to wait. It wasn’t the rush of the day; there were just a few people inside. The barista called the older man over and asked him again what kind of sandwich he had ordered. And for a moment he seemed confused, before turning around and motioning toward the door.
That got my attention, along with the table next to mine. After some hesitation, the younger man managed to make his way over and repeat his sandwich order. The older man nodded and made sure the barista had heard correctly before grabbing his drink and passing another one to the man beside him. That got the table going.
I could grab short phrases of their hasty whisperings and motions. It was clear that they believed the older man was being cheated. He had been approached by someone on the street and had probably been asked for money. That’s not unusual in St. Louis. A number of my students usually complete projects on homelessness in the city, finding in their research the city’s official count from 2015, averaging about 1,700 people. Rather than give money, however, this older man had offered to buy him food.
As the sandwich came – wrapped in foil to keep it warm – the older man handed it to the man beside him. He patted him on the shoulder, before the younger man headed off in the opposite direction from which he had arrived. The older man started to head to the door he had arrived through, bringing him close to my table and the table next to me. And that’s when it happened. They asked the older man if he knew he had probably been cheated. He looked slightly confused before asking them to repeat what they had said.
He was probably in his 80s and reminded me of a leaner, taller version of my great grandfather. That was what he had reminded the other table of too – they told him they wouldn’t have wanted their grandparents to have been cheated, so they thought he should know. He never answered their question, but he did remind them of the day of judgment: When Jesus returns and separates the sheep from the goats. To those on his right, he welcomes into his kingdom: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink” (Matthew 25:35). That elicited a scoff from the table. The man shrugged and went on his way.
In that moment I realized that I knew that man: He was a deacon at my parish. As the table next to mine packed up their things and left, I remained behind working. I made another order and asked if the barista had often seen the younger man around the shop. She said no, but that the deacon was a regular and would often pay for his order and the orders of the people behind him. Random acts of kindness. Of course, he would.
Too often we pass by individuals without thinking of what their story could be. I may have passed the same man on my way into the coffee shop. I hadn’t stopped – just kept going with my hazards up. But the deacon had not only stopped; he had offered to help. He had embodied Jesus’ message to love one another as he had loved us.
Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.