Last night, I stood in a cathedral with towering ceilings covered with painted white-winged angels. There were ornate wooden carvings at every turn. The way the late summer light filtered through the stained glass at just the right angle to illuminate the nativity scene could stop your heart for a moment. The altar is made of onyx and marble. The statues are brass and gold. The organ can blow your hair back, or at least you are sure it would when you close your eyes and imagine standing in front of its impossibly tall pipes.
When all the organ stops are pulled and its pedals fall like a row of finger-flicked dominoes under the flurry of the organist’s deft, dancing feet, it makes you forget whatever was worrying you when you walked through the giant oak doors that evening.
But that’s not where I went to church last night. Church was being held at the convenience store down the road. It was pouring rain when I left the cathedral. The frantic windshield wipers on my Hyundai struggled to ward off the onslaught.
When I pulled up outside, I noticed a young man in his early 20s with an unruly beard and torn heavily-soiled jeans sitting under a partial awning, turning his gaunt body at intervals so he would never be fully exposed to the relentless rain.
As I was getting out of my car, a man in his 30s wearing a baseball cap and Carhartt jacket walked right up to him and asked ― with the ease of someone asking a loved one how their day had gone ― if he could use a refill for the empty coffee cup he could see held close against the young man’s sunken chest.
The young man looked surprised at first and stood there for several silent seconds before deciding to follow this stranger into the store to take him up on his offer. I followed them both inside and looked on from an inconspicuous corner as the disheveled, disoriented young man tried to keep his shaking hand steady enough to refill his small styrofoam coffee cup. I wondered if the other man could see in that trembling hand what I saw. I wondered if being a substance abuse counselor had made me cynical.
He tried his best to not let the shaking spill the coffee in his hand as he walked toward the counter. The man in the Carhartt jacket, who had watched patiently from a far enough distance to not add self-consciousness and shame to the young man’s obvious struggle to refill his cup, intercepted him before he reached the counter. He gently took the side-splashing cup of coffee from his hand and directed his attention away from the counter and back to the whole of the convenience store. He made a broad, sweeping motion to encompass all the aisles and said, “Get whatever you want.”
The young man again stood in stunned silence before making his way to the perpetually rotating rollers of the hot dog and taquito case where he loaded up a single hot dog with all the free fixings. He deliberated for a long while as he made his way up and down the many rows before selecting one snack-sized bag of Doritos to go along with his small coffee refill and $1.29 hot dog.
The man in the cap helped him place the items on the counter and asked if he wanted anything else. The young man shook his head no. The benevolent stranger then asked him what his preferred brand of smokes was and the young man paused before pointing a now steadier finger at a pack of Marlboro Reds. The man in the cap and Carhartt asked the attendant behind the counter to add it on with the rest, including two tall cans of Budweiser, one of which he gave to his young friend.
After I made my purchase and returned to my car, I saw them standing together under the half-awning in the still-pouring rain, each smoking a cigarette. They weren’t exchanging words. They both looked out at the street lights, which were obscured through the sheets of rain into an ethereal line of indistinct, glowing orbs.
As I backed out of my parking spot I could see, for the first time, what looked like the beginnings of a smile on the young man’s face. It was more beautiful than anything I’d seen in the cathedral earlier that night.
Witnessing this, I thought, inspires more reverence than gold or marble ever could. Tonight’s worship service was in the convenience store, not in the cathedral. God’s hand wasn’t manifest through the intricate carvings or the awe-inspiring murals. God’s hand reached out to steady the tremor in another’s hand before paying to refill his empty coffee cup.