Back in April, I was out at a Starbucks near our house for an evening of reading for my diaconate program’s Philosophy course. I had about a week to read roughly 200 pages of St. Thomas Aquinas (and that’s not an easy read!)
As the Starbucks was getting closer to closing, I was reading a section on Aquinas’s explanation of the problem of evil when I noticed a younger man, probably mid-20’s, anxiously interacting with the staff. He kept asking to use the phone, was calling various people, trying to figure out where he was, how to get somewhere. He eventually asked one of the women working a the Starbucks if she would give him a ride to the Greyhound station in St. Louis when she got off of work.
It got to a point where my gut, and/or the Holy Spirit, kept tugging at me, telling me that I should introduce myself to him and ask if he needed help.
So I packed up my books and notes, walked over, offered my hand, introduced myself, and asked if he needed anything.
That’s when I meet James.
He was immediately overcome by the fact that someone was offering to help him. He insisted that he didn’t want to be a burden, but explained that he really needed to find a way to Litchfield, Illinois (almost an hour north on the interstate), but could get there if he could get a ride to the Greyhound station in St. Louis (about fifteen minutes west).
So I offered to give him a ride. He reluctantly, nervously accepted. It struck me, as we were getting into my car, that while I was probably the one who should be nervous picking up a complete stranger, he seemed very nervous getting into a car with a complete stranger.
As we got onto the interstate toward St. Louis and started talking about his situation, I started to feel more and more compelled to head the other direction and take him all the way to Litchfield.
I called home to Suzanne and let her know that it might sound crazy, but I had met this guy named James at Starbucks who needed a ride to Litchfield. I was going to take him, and I’d call her later. (Her nervousness upon hearing this is another story that I may have to tell someday.)
I cut north through St. Louis and headed back into Illinois and toward Litchfield.
We talked a lot in that hour.
He hadn’t eaten all afternoon, so I stopped at a McDonald’s to buy him a meal.
He had come to Illinois from New York and “bought in” to a scheme with a man who gave him a route to sell magazine subscriptions. In return, he got a cut of the subscriptions. Of late, he hadn’t been pushy or successful enough, so the man had dropped him off at the Walmart next to the Starbucks, told him to try to sell there for the afternoon and then he’d pick him up later in the evening. The man had never returned.
When James had tried calling him from the Starbucks, the man kept saying he wasn’t coming back for him.
When James started calling his mom in Florida, he didn’t even know how to explain where he was. There was nothing she could do.
Same with his girlfriend in New York. She didn’t even know where Collinsville, Illinois was.
All that he knew was that the man, and his hotel room, and his bag of his worldly possessions were in a hotel room in Litchfield.
James had grown up in a very tough home life. His mom and dad had both gotten caught up in drugs. Both had spent time in prison. He had grown up with his grandmother helping to raise him. When his parents got out of prison, they moved into a hotel with him. Another man that shared their hotel room sexually abused James.
James ran, found good employment in New York, fell in love with a girl and fathered a daughter by her. He started to seek out better opportunities to try to do better for his young family. This led him to Chicago, then downstate Illinois. He had never been away from New York or Florida.
His dad had gone back to prison, his mom had moved to Florida with her mom (the grandmother who had helped raise him) to try to straighten out her own life.
James just wanted to figure out how to get back onto his feet, maybe how to get back to his mom and grandmother and start to rebuild a life. He wanted to help his girlfriend and daughter reunite with him.
He just needed to talk this man in Litchfield into his bag and some help to get “home”.
Eventually, he wanted to get a better education. He wanted to be able to talk to young people about the dangers of drugs and falling in with the wrong people.
It wasn’t lost on me as I listened and talked with James, that his name was one that meant so much to me.
One of my mentors growing up in scouting was another man named James. James was a pharmacist but also a drug abuse counselor who had won special recognition by President and First Lady Reagan, and had been their guests at a dinner at the White House in honor of his efforts to work with high school and college students to keep them away from drugs.
When I received the Sacrament of Confirmation, I chose to take the name of St. James as my patron saint.
Our second son is named Matthew James, tied to my devotion to St. James.
I told my new friend James about my old friend James. We shared more stories.
James wept. He couldn’t believe people could be so kind and helpful. He didn’t know how to thank me. I told him he didn’t need to.
James and I prayed together. I wept a bit.
We got to the hotel in Litchfield, and James got his bag. He went to the Amtrak station in Springfield… I gave him money for a trip to Florida. He was going to take the Amtrak to Chicago, then bus through Nashville to Florida.
I gave James my phone number. He called me the next day from his bus transfer in Nashville. He wanted me to know he was on his way and he was okay. He wanted to say “thank you”. I wanted to say “thank you” too.
He called me the next day from his grandmother’s house in Florida. I said a quiet “thank you” to our Father in heaven.
James left and found his way home, but he left an indelible mark on my soul and memory.
My drive home from Litchfield was a wonderful time of silent reflection. I thought a lot about what Aquinas had written about the problem of evil and how good could help to balance evil. I thought about how that had come into my life in a very real, tangible way that night.
I thought a lot about the challenges of the ministry that I am studying for and being formed for in the church as a deacon – a servant, a “waiter”.
I’m eager for ways to serve those who need the most – physically, and spiritually. I’m eager to find all of the “Jameses” that need a glimpse of the good, that need a little hand on their shoulder or help getting up from the falls that life can bring us.
So I’m especially excited that the first assignment and challenge that my pastor-supervisor in my first parish pastoral assignment has given me is to look at what the parish is (isn’t) doing right now with its food pantry, and figure out what to do with it heading forward. I look at this as a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with other churches in our town, and doing more from within our parish community, to reach out to the “Jameses” in our own neighborhoods and city.
That night in April when I met James in Starbucks has been a night that I have recalled every single day since. It had a huge impact on me and my spiritual formation. James stays on my prayer list every day – both the “real” James and all of the other people like him who need the healing touch of Christ through the work of those of faith.
Lord, help me to see the “Jameses” around me in my daily life. Help me to see and understand their need. Help me to be your hands, your voice, your healing touch in some way in their lives. Be with me and work through me. When they see me and my actions, let them see you. Amen.