My students are currently studying a unit on belief systems and the impact they have on how people live their lives. Each week we are looking at a different major world religion. This last week was Christianity, which made me think a lot about my own journey with belief systems. Though I am still not committed to one system over another, I have come a very long way on my journey. My travel to different parts of the world has been pivotal to shaping how I have come to know God. This story tells how it all began.
I was not, by any stretch of the imagination, one who went to church, let alone tuned in to religious sermons. I definitely was not someone who would take the steps necessary to download a whole spiritual series created by a Texan minister. An extravagant, witty, sarcastic, former-Broadway-dancer-turned-hair-stylist, neither was the person who originally suggested that I tune in, but my friend raved about this minister, so I decided to take a peek. "Girrrrl, it could change your life!"
Like I was sneaking contraband, I watched a service or two before I would admit to it. Soon enough, we found ourselves whispering about the previous night's sermon while polishing glasses in our liberal, artist-filled jazz club establishment. I still felt squeamish about openly admitting that I was tuning in. "Oh, honey! You and me both!" And then we would giggle about the strangeness of the whole scenario.
Switching from saying "Universe" to "God" was a strange transition for my rebellious Catholic school tongue. God and I had agreed to disagree and go on our separate journeys many, many years before. Despite my deep belief in the magic of the universe and the existence of the super natural, I refused to say I "praised God." I could enjoy the lessons from the minister, but there was no prodigal daughter in me; my mind was made up. I would soon learn that God, infinitely humorous, holding the upper hand and all, still had a few tricks up his sleeve.
I had tuned into the almighty power of the universe and believed fully in manifesting your own destiny and all that, but I still believed that the work was up to me, and so I continued to work my tail off to "create my own successes." Being that as it was, when I heard the sermon, (the one I would talk about for years after) I was dubious. Maybe even annoyed. So annoyed that I stewed about it all afternoon.
Hoping the call would keep my mind off the fact that I was still many shifts away from the $5,000 I needed in order return to my work in Africa, I called my mom as I emerged from the subway. Should-be-illegal sub-zero winds whipped through the streets and slapped my face, as if chiding me for thinking that I might make any money on a football championship game Sunday.
"There is no way I am ever going to make this happen. I am going to be stuck waiting tables for the rest of my existence. No one is going to come in tonight, and I have less than a month to raise this money or I am going to have to say no to going back to the camp. " A city block or two of whining seemed to be keeping my blood warm.
"Say a few prayers, it could happen."
"Preacher O claims you have to be specific in what you ask for. " Ohhhhh, no... I had let it slip. I was tuning in to a preacher. I tried to cover it up. "Anyway... If it is meant to be, the universe will conspire. What's new there?"
Damn... She wasn't going to let it slide. I think she still held a grudge that I got sassy during my First Holy Communion when the priest put the mic to my bride-veiled face and said:
"Do you understand the importance of this? Do you know that we are what we eat?" Father Mike paused.
I smirked: "So you are saying that, if I eat a grilled cheese, I become a grilled cheese?" The very packed cathedral stifled a laugh. Or maybe she was still concerned that I was the only person in our family to refuse confirmation. Either way, my confession of sermon watching may have just presented a window of opportunity.
"Specific, like, if you want something, you have to be precise. You cannot just say: I want a plane ticket. You have to say: I want $1,300 to cover my Delta flight to Africa, and another $3,700 to cover the remaining expenses. If God is all knowing and all, wouldn't he know my bank balance needs? Wouldn't he be excited to have me going off to Africa to serve on a refugee camp?" People around me were starting to stare. Great. I had just outed myself as a sermon-listener to all of Chelsea.
"Well, try it. You never know." I could hear her smile on the other end as I disconnected. Window opened. God help me now...
The night was proving to be a bust. Guest after guest called our exclusive restaurant to cancel their hard-to-get reservation. I wasn't going to make five grand that night, no matter how precisely I begged.
To add insult to injury, most of the other servers were sent home for the evening. We had one (already very tardy) reservation of VIPs left on the books. The last remaining server and I were getting ready to draw straws over who could go home next when they walked through the door.
They. The late reservation. She came in giggling at her girlfriend's joke. The genteel men de-cloaked the wives of their floor length fur coats. When she bent to shake her stilettos free of snow, I noted that her blouse matched the silk lining in her shoe. It was the same water-marbled blue silk that lined her fur coat. Who does that?
The manager ignored our straw draw: "Erin, I'm cutting James. Stay on top of these people; they are important."
Oh, goodness... What a night this was turning out to be.
Approaching the table with a wine list, I could feel my sassy coming on. They were not going to keep me late inside a Chelsea restaurant on a snow-stormy-no-money-making-Sunday and escape the sassy-tongue of an annoyed Erin. It just wasn't possible.
"Good evening. I'm Erin. I'll be guiding you through your dining experience tonight. Would you care to start with sparkl -- ?"
"No suuuugar, we'll just start with this," said the bigger of the two men, now pointing to an exquisite bottle of $1,200 French red from our exclusive section. "And bring this one (pointing to an $800 bottle of white) for my wife while we decide on the wine for our supper." That is $2,000 gone, while they decided on the real wine to drink with dinner.
Who does that?
The sommelier offered the wine for a taste. Big Man waved a not-subtle hand and said: "Just pour." Then came the long drawn out "Suuuuuugarrrrrrrrr, we need some grub!" Oh. No. He didn't just do that.
"Oh, I'm so sorry, I must have missed saying my name. I'm Erin. May I tell you about our featur -- "
"Oh, huhhhhh-neee, just bring us what's good. Darlin' we're hungry so make it snappy!"
Seriously? Was this really happening? This man was about to tip me over the edge.
"Oh, and sweet cakes, we are amazing tippers if you are a good waitress." Edge reached, Erin tipped.
"Well, darlin," I was no longer responsible for what sassy Erin might say. "I happen to be the best server you will ever meet, so I hope you keep your word." Wife spurted a sip of her $800 white; friends roared. Big Man's eyes grew wide, then narrowed. It was on.
The next 45 minutes or so proved to be a wit match between Big Man and I. He sassed, I sassed. We were the evening's entertainment. Finally, he grabbed my hand and said: "You are not just some waitress. What is it that you do?"
Pulling my hand away, I snapped: "You are not from New York, are you?"
"No darlin', we aren't. What gave it away?"
The list was long. The cowboy hats and heavy southern accents served as the first clues, but I decided to stay with the most obvious factor: He didn't know that no one working in a fine dining establishment in New York was just a server. We all had something other that we were up to, something way bigger than opening some rich man's bottle of wine.
"So, what's your something bigger? You trying to make it to Broadway?" Everyone at the table leaned in, wanting to hear.
"Actually, I am trying to get back to Africa. West Africa. Ghana. "
"Well, I'll be! Tell me more!" exclaimed his overly-excited wife, practically jumping out of her seat.
I explained my story: that I had been working in the theatre world when I was presented with the opportunity to bring theatre arts and education to the children on the Buduburam Refugee Camp. I said "Yes!" before I knew the details and ended up having to raise close to $10,000 to make it happen. It was a life-transforming experience, so much so that I called the theatre tour I was working with and quit so that I could stay another month on this electricity-free, water-sparse, crammed refugee camp in the middle of nowhere.
"Oh my goodness! Who does that?" the wife exclaimed. "And now? What are you doing now?"
"Now I'm trying to raise the money to get back."
I went on to explain that I was offered a very low-paying position managing the organization with whom I had volunteered. I not only had to pay for my own flight, but I also had to raise enough money to cover New York expenses while away. By this point, shoe/blouse/coat woman was nearly standing at the table, bobbing with enthusiasm. She grabbed my hand and, in a hushed tone, told me about their recent Sunday service experience.
"We aren't normally churchgoers, but for some reason, I insisted we all go before the New York trip. I just felt like God had a message for me. When we were there, this African man stood in front of the congregation to tell us all about how members of our church had saved him and his family, bringing them over to America. He told us about projects they had taken on in Ghana, all about these wells that they built, schools that they opened, and young lives that they saved with medical care. Now he is doing just amazing things for our community. " She stopped; the whole table smiled, and stared.
"Go on," Big Man prodded, "tell her what you said."
"Well, I felt like God was givin' us a message, sayin' that we needed to be helping Africa, too. You know where this man was from? Ghana! He was from Ghana!" Everyone at the table smiled. "Sounds like maybe God thinks we were supposed to meet."
We found a turning point. They wanted to know everything they possibly could about me. Who were my parents, what did I do with my life, what was my favorite show, what kind of music did I like... When it was time for the bill, Big Man wanted to know all about our tipping policy.
Would I receive it all? Could I get cash from a credit card tip? Did I get paid that night, or later? I answered his queries, a bit thrown off by his need for details. Normally they just throw the 18 percent on the line and call it a day. He handed over his heavy, black metal Amex card, never looking at his nearly $4,000 bill.
When I returned with the card, Big Man grabbed my hand again."Darlin'."
"Yes sir," I replied. We were friends now; the sass had left and my southern girl was emerging.
"Darlin,' we are amazed by what you are doing and know that we were meant to meet you."
"It's like you are meant to be our Africa angel!" Mrs. Big Man replied.
"Yes, it is like you are our Africa angel, so we want to help you out." He then slipped something into my palm. A very thick folded pile of something.
I just stood, frozen, my hand weak in Big Man's palm, holding a pile of something. "Are you... did you... Are you contributing to my trip? Even after I was so sassy with you?"
"Honey, it is precisely that you were soooo darn sassy that we fell in love with you. No one, and I do mean no one, has ever come back at my rude husband like you did, and that just let me know that you are something special. Anyway, count it."
And so I did. When I reached $1,800, tears fell from my face.
"Is there enough there to cover your flight?"
Stammering... Lost for words... "It's too much! Let me give some back."
"Darlin' you may be the smartest gal I have met, but you sure are a fool! Never give money back! Send us a drum when you get there so we know you arrived safely."
"Now, we left a little something on the credit card so everyone else gets their pay tonight. Your tip is in there too. This other something was just us doing what we know God sent us here to do." Big Man's voice had taken on a fatherly tone.
I was in a daze when we said our goodbyes. Hugs were exchanged and promises to send a drum secured with an address scrawled on a vague business card. I never did ask them what they did for a living; for all I knew, they traveled the world making the dreams of servers come true.
When I collected the credit card slip, I nearly fell to the ground with weak knees. My money-raising efforts could cease; I had everything I needed for my trip and more than enough leftover to buy a drum. Filled with gratitude, God's humor was not lost on me. My specific request had more than been filled. I picked up my phone and dialed.
"Hello, I need to book a ticket to Ghana, please. And let's make it snappy."
Have you ever asked specifically and received the outcome you desire? Tell me about it here!
Follow Erin Michelle Threlfall on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ethrelfall