Witnessing a Random Act of Kindness

Yesterday I temporarily lifted my ban on wearing t-shirts to Sunday worship (in some ways I’m a little old-fashioned, I guess) and dressed myself and my kids in matching bright yellow t-shirts with the words ‘God’s Work Our Hands’ emblazoned on the front. On the back was the logo for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and our congregation’s name, city, and state. More than half the people in our congregation were wearing these shirts, and after worship we split into groups and participated in a variety of service projects designed to help people both in our local community and in our global community. ELCA congregations around the country dressed their members in their own bright yellow t-shirts and participated in other service projects, mobilizing thousands of Lutherans in a denominational wide service project that will benefit countless people.

It was beautiful.

And I’m sure most congregations, like mine, stressed the importance of serving others as an act of faith even when it’s not part of a coordinated effort. And I’m sure some number of people took that message to heart and will strive to do so. They might volunteer for one of their congregation’s various ministries, or perhaps find a local soup kitchen or transitional living center that could use their help. But earlier in the week I witnessed what this looks like on a much smaller scale, and how momentous a small act of kindness can be.

Not only am I old-fashioned when it comes to my family’s Sunday morning dress code, but I still pay my bills by writing out checks, putting them in envelopes, stamping them, and putting them into a mailbox. Yes, some people still do that, and I’m one of them.

And, as often happens to people like me, I was running low on stamps. So I actually drove to the Post Office on Tuesday afternoon so I could buy a new roll of Forever stamps. From a real person who stood behind the counter. Did you know real people still work at the Post Office? A few of them, anyway.

Unfortunately, my timing was such that I got there about thirty minutes before they closed, and after a number of people got out of work and decided to run to the Post Office for their own errands. The line was long. Very long.

Knowing I had an hour and a half before I had to pick up my son, I pulled out my phone, called up The House of Seven Gables on my e-reader, and settled in to wait. The line moved slowly in front of me, and more people piled up behind me.

After ten minutes there were only six people in front of me and about eighteen behind me. I’d tuned out the mutterings about how slow the line was and the complaints that there were only two people working the windows, and pretty much ignored everyone except the person in front of me. When they moved, I moved, and I didn’t worry about anyone else.

And then a very well-dressed man standing four people behind me, probably in his mid-forties, spoke loudly to everyone else in line. “If anyone has a single stamp they’re willing to sell me, I’ll pay you a dollar for it,” he announced.

He was answered by a woman who was sixth in line behind him. We all heard her voice, but it was difficult to see her because she wasn’t standing. She was sitting on the low shelf on the back wall that displayed packing material for sale, the shelf bowing dangerously underneath her ample weight. Her hair was disheveled, her glasses slightly askew, and she balanced a cane in front of her, ready to pull herself up by it when she was unable to slide herself along the shelf. She looked to be in her late-fifties.

“I have a stamp,” she said pleasantly. “But you don’t have to pay me a dollar for it. I can make change.”

Several people in line tittered, and I grinned as the man walked over to her and tried to hand her a dollar as she pulled a small strip of stamps out of her large blue vinyl pocketbook. “No, no, I’m not going to take your dollar,” she protested. “Let me just get my change purse.”

While she was still digging for her change purse, the man said, “Thank you,” laid the dollar on the shelf next to her, and walked out with the single stamp he’d been waiting too long for.

The woman just shrugged, picked up the dollar, put it in the change purse she’d finally found, and slid a little further down the shelf to help close the hole in the line the man had left.

“Does anyone else need to buy just one stamp?” she asked.

An elderly woman two people behind her said, “I need to buy two, but I only have a ten dollar bill.”

The woman with the stamps smiled and said, “Oh, just take them. He already paid for one of yours.”

A small argument ensued, as the elderly woman did not want to be the recipient of charity and the woman with the stamps insisted that she would happily give up forty-nine cents to save someone the burden of standing in that line. Finally the elderly woman gave in and accepted the stamps, thanking the other woman profusely. The woman with the stamps asked if there were any other takers, and this time there were none.

But I looked at the other people in line. Every single one of them was smiling. Even the ones who had been standing in line for upwards of fifteen minutes were smiling, basking in the friendliness and generosity displayed by this unlikely servant.

If she’d been at my church yesterday, we probably could’ve accommodated one of the servant projects to her physical limitations, but most of them would have been beyond her capabilities. Yet she found a way to serve others within her own abilities, and she served more than the well-dressed man and the elderly woman. She served every one of us who witnessed her act of kindness.

As important as events like ‘God’s Work Our Hands’ might be, imagine how much could be accomplished if more of us emulated her generous spirit in such ordinary circumstances. Big gestures matter, but the little ones matter more.

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