I couldn't quite place the guy, but I knew I knew him. Then, I heard him speak. I'd heard that voice before, but still couldn't put my finger on when or where. It's a gentle voice, a slow Southern-tinged drawl. Maybe that was at least part of the problem. In North Carolina where I live, slow Southern drawls aren't exactly uncommon.
A couple of minutes passed, and he spoke again. I turned in my seat and quickly stole a glance at the name tag on his credential holder, hoping to somehow get this thing figured out. My heart almost stopped.
I was instantly transported back twenty-one years or so in the past. Gordon and I were sitting in his office at Sparta First Baptist in North Carolina's beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, and I'd just asked him for $20 in order to buy some groceries. More than two decades later, it's hard to suppress the emotions the memory conjures up.
I was working as the sports editor at The Alleghany News, a small weekly newspaper. The gig didn't pay much ... I was bringing home $150 a week. The "bedroom" in my tiny efficiency apartment was nothing more than a wide space in the hallway. I could lay on my box spring and mattress -- there was no room for a frame -- and place my feet flat on one wall and touch the other with my head.
Even then, I could barely afford the place. I got behind on rent, but when I got caught up, I always fell behind on another bill. The head of the local telephone company had a daughter who played basketball for Alleghany High School, and he gave me $10 off my phone bill every time her picture appeared in the paper.
So ... yeah ... Mary McMillan's picture wound up in The Alleghany News. A lot.
Still, my phone got shut off a time or two. So did the electricity. Paula Hampton, the office manager, allowed me to leave IOUs in petty cash. Co-worker Lynn Brooks invited me to eat with her family, knowing I didn't have much. You know you're on hard times when soup beans are the kind of blessing you remember two decades latter.
The Reynolds family ... James, Lib, Jamie and Amy ... we still laugh once in a while about the race Jamie and I attended on something far less than a shoestring budget. I was worried about the glowing red light on the gas gauge miles from home while Jamie fretted about being hungry. Momma Lib had pizza waiting on us when we finally made it back to Sparta, and it was the best pizza I'd ever eaten.
Ends never met, and more often than not, didn't even come close. That's ultimately what brought me in to speak with Gordon, the pastor at Sparta First Baptist. I was embarrassed. Ashamed. More than just financially broke, my spirit had also been broken. This wasn't supposed to be happening to me, not here. Not now. Not ever.
I felt like I had nowhere to turn and tried as best I could to explain my situation to Gordon. Although it was the most humbling thing I'd ever done in my life, he didn't try to send me to a benevolence committee. Instead, Gordon gave me the money out of his own pocket. Relieved, I headed straight for the local Food Lion and stretched that $20 bill as far as it could possibly go.
|Thanks, Gordon. I'll pay it forward. I promise.|
As soon as the meeting ended, I stood up and turned to him. I stuck out my hand in greeting, not knowing exactly what to say.
Gordon, I don't know if you remember me, but I was a member of your church in Sparta about twenty years ago.
Clearly, he was having as hard a time placing me as I had him at first. I continued, still searching for the right words.
You helped me out and gave me $20 for groceries one time, and I just wanted to say thank you.
The words caught in my throat. It was awkward standing there in front of him, admitting a long-ago weakness and getting as emotional as I seemed to be getting. He asked me my name and when I told him, my identity seemed to dawn on him. He smiled and asked how and what I was doing these days.
I told Gordon, who is now the senior pastor at Dudley Shoals Baptist Church in Granite Falls, North Carolina, about some of the books I've written and about speaking at the Life Lessons From Mayberry conference in Ridgecrest. I told him about Jeanie and the boys. I thanked him again.
Our reunion lasted maybe five minutes before the next session of the conference we were attending was scheduled to begin. Ever since that day, I've thought about the role Gordon played at such a critical crossroads in my life's journey. He was there for me at a time when I needed help the very, very most. So were James, Lib, Jamie, Amy, Paula and Lynn. It's left me with this question, and it's a big one.
How can I be a Gordon West for somebody else?
I could've attempted to repay Gordon his $20, but I'm sure he wouldn't have taken it. That's not the kind of repayment he'd want. Gordon would want me to pay it forward, to give to someone else who needs a helping hand.
This isn't a New Year's resolution, either. Those tend to come and go, completely forgotten by the end of the first week in January. No. I'm going to figure out a way to give back, with interest.
That's my goal for 2015 and beyond. What's yours? How are you going to pay it forward?