The plane was full the day we flew to Birmingham, Alabama. My husband Alan had been working in and out of the city for two years and had been coaxing me to visit. The past couple of years, however, I didn’t want to go anywhere unless it was in the western U.S. or south of Georgia. My Tennessee husband adored everything about the south, and his love for Birmingham and its people finally convinced me to go.
Before we left that morning I’d said prayers for safe travels and for the Lord to send people my way. People I could bless.
It started after we landed, over at the baggage conveyor belt. A porter helped us retrieve our luggage and then the three of us trekked to get the rental car. I don’t remember why it took so long—maybe the four-wheel drive my husband Alan wanted wasn’t available. But we waited a good twenty minutes. I struck up a conversation with the porter, a handsome young man, probably mid-twenties. He never looked at his watch or complained about the delay. During our conversation, he told me he used to work for Continental Airlines but a merger had cost him his job. Now he was carrying luggage.
“You’re fortunate to get a job in this business climate,” I said.
“Yes, Ma’am. But this is my second job. I got another job at the plant.”
Sixteen to eighteen hour work days were not uncommon for him, he said, and he’d just bought his first rental house. Paid cash!
I was astounded. I knew people twice his age who couldn’t afford a first home, much less a rental. And cash! It wasn’t just the house; this young man had laid out a financial plan for his future and he was willing to work to achieve it. I gushed, “With your work ethic, you could be the next Donald Trump!” (This was well before the presidential race) “That’s very impressive. You should be proud of yourself. I’m proud of you.”
If that sounds arrogant, I didn’t mean it that way. I spent a fair amount of time conversing with him, listening to him, and I liked him. On a spiritual level, I loved this guy. He’d told me some of his hopes and dreams, how he had planned his life for success. Of the many conversations I have with young people, I found him exceptional. I was proud of him. I don’t know about me blessing him, but his story and his resolve blessed me. Sometimes, I think, the best blessing I can offer is a smile when I’d rather scowl, or a hefty tip! I hugged him before we drove off to meet our second young man.
Arriving at the hotel, we were greeted effusively at the front desk. It was the kind of treatment you receive at a ritzy resort when you’re paying for friendly, but with an exotic accent rather than a southern nuance. It wasn’t the kind of service you typically get at an Embassy Suites anywhere.
After the pretty desk clerk introduced us to the bellman, Alan left to park the car. The bellman stayed by my side, never leaving the luggage. I began to wonder if we were in a bad section of town. His job, he relayed in a soft southern drawl, was to make us happy, so whatever we wanted or needed, he was available. Just call. I’ve heard that from bellmen before, but they generally mean for us to call the desk for a ‘body.’ This guy made it sound like he would personally crawl out from under the sheets at 3:00 a.m. to find me a fluffier pillow. And then he told me his name was “John” for the second time, as a reminder.
Alan finally got back and we trekked to our room. When my husband handed “John” two bills, he looked at his tip and then back at Alan with the most innocent, pale brown eyes I’ve ever seen on anyone over the age of ten.
“’Scuse me, sir,” he said, “but you gave me two of these. Did you mean to do that?” He held out the two greenbacks for us to see. My husband assured him he did.
After he left, I looked at Alan like we’d arrived on planet Pluto. “What was that all about, trying to give us back half the tip and all that gushing at the front desk?”
“Welcome to my world!” My husband’s eyes twinkled. “These are my people. You’re in the south, baby. Love it or leave it.” He said it jokingly, but in his heart, my Tennessee-reared husband was serious. Not the ‘love it or leave it’ part, but the, ‘these are my people’ part.
I live in West Virginia. We aren’t exactly north . . . or south. We’re kind of stuck where we’ve been since the Civil War—smack dab in the middle. I’ve been in the south a lot, but Birmingham’s friendliness, and especially the sincerity of the bellman was exceptional, a stunning contrast to the entitlement attitude of so many people these days.
After thanking us for the tip he asked if we were going out to dinner. We were.
“Why don’t you let me shuttle you. I’d really love to. You can save your gas. I’ll give you my cell number to call when you’re finished.”
My bottom lip fell to my chin. He was so genuine, wearing that same innocent expression. How could we not oblige?
On the way to dinner, we learned that he lived about a mile from the hotel to make himself available to his employer and its guests. I began to believe that he actually would drag himself out in the middle of the night for a lodger.
Dinner brought us our third young man, our server, a California transplant who’d moved to Birmingham in junior high. Like the other two, he looked to be mid-twenties. (Are you getting this pattern?) He had a dream of breathing New York City air and working in the theatre. His enthusiasm was as profuse as Birmingham’s hospitality. Yet he was fearful. He had a girlfriend who wanted to go too, but New York was expensive. They had dogs. How would it all work out?
“Only one way to find out,” I told him. “Try it. Nothing is forever. That’s what I did. I left college and went to New York.”
We talked about dreams and the scary part of something with so many unknowns. Something his parents couldn’t help finance, but that he desperately wanted to do. When he brought our check, he looked thoughtful.
“Thanks for talking to me.” He leaned into our small table. “I want to go to New York and if I don’t go now, when?” He was anxious to see his girlfriend’s reaction to his newfound resolve. Factors might alter his position, I realize, but that night he’d formulated a change. I tossed a silent prayer to heaven, asking that he would be blessed. In my heart, I felt that he would. After all, he was the third young man God had placed in our path that day.
I get jaded sometimes, wondering what the world will be like in twenty years. Many of my fears were erased that day. The more I listened, the more I learned about our country’s future. These three young men—black, white, and other—comprised a true American mix. To paraphrase my husband, ‘this is our country, baby, love it or leave it.’ It may not look the same as it did when I was growing up, but it still looks promising.
And, here’s the thing. I hope you noticed. I prayed for God to send me people to bless, but really, I’m the one who got blessed. Not only were some of my fears erased, but Alan and I had the pleasure of meeting young people who wanted to make themselves and the world a better place than they found it, who wanted to help others or follow a dream.
And here’s the other thing: It’s very special when someone confides to you why they do what they do or what they hope to do. Listening is not a small thing. When people talk, now and again, we should just clam up and listen. By doing so, we’re blessing the story-teller.
The Bible teaches us to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and He will direct your path.” I feel confident that as a child of God, when I’ve prayed for God’s direction, my path is not my own. If you stumble across it, I’m destined to meet you.
Perhaps all Alan and I did was to encourage the Birmingham Three as they will forever be remembered by me. They truly touched my heart. I trust that what was exchanged somehow made a difference in their lives as well, even in a small way.
That day I was also reminded that in God’s economy, when I pray to bless someone, I will get more than I give. It’s one of the many things I love about my heavenly Father.