Sunday, October 25, 2009

I Love It When A Plan Comes Together (Marion, Va)

(Back) Alan, Dr. Jones, Kelley, me (Front) Aidan, Lily & Collin on Sunday night

When the seed of the idea for this walk first came to me five years ago, I somewhat naively thought it would go exactly like this: I would look for a host in a town where I had no existing connections by emailing a local church, explaining what I was doing and magically the pastor's family would welcome me with open arms.

I believed that because if someone had contacted my dad's church with a similar request when I was a kid that is exactly what would have happened. Well, except for the email part. Al Gore hadn't invented the Internet yet.

In the real world it hasn't been quite that easy. I have met wonderfully hospitable people through contacting random churches - Ginger Will in Schaghticoke & Rev. Cherie Philips in Peekskill. Equally there have been a lot of churches who haven't responded to my emails or calls at all. Granted, what I am asking is altogether uncommon in our day and age. My dad pastored for 30 years and my mom has been a church administrator for almost as long and neither of them can remember getting a request from a complete stranger for somewhere to stay on a walk across America.

Some part of me wanted to believe that the Christian tradition of hospitality would trump the fear of strangers that is daily sown in our psyches by the American media machine. In my request I try my best to allay any fears, giving plenty of phone numbers for personal references and attaching a letter of recommendation from the President of the American Bible Society. Even with all that I was experiencing an extended drought finding hosts through contacting churches. Until Sunday night.

I sent an email to Royal Oak Presbyterian Church in Marion, Virginia a week before I was scheduled to get to town. I gave my usual references and noted that I would call in a day and a half to introduce myself. Less than a day later one of my references contacted me to say she had received a call to ask about her experience hosting me. That was a good sign. Later that afternoon I called the church to say hi and talked directly to Rev. Alan Gray.

Alan said that I would be very welcome to stay the night with him and his family. It was just that easy. I might as well have been in a time warp talking to my Dad a generation ago. Score one for small town Presbyterians. Alan and his wife have ministered in Marion for about 11 years, the same amount of time my family had been in West Hebron circa 1981. My brother was 10 and I was 8 at the time. Alan's sons Aidan and Collin are 11 and 9. He also has a 6 year old daughter Lily.

Alan met me in the parking lot of the church at 5pm and after asking if there were any errands I needed to run took me out to the house. Kelley cooked a wonderful dinner and we enjoyed great fellowship around the table. Another member of their congregation, Dr. Jeff Jones, joined us for dinner. It just so happened that he had lived in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) when he was in his 20s. We talked and laughed and then had an intermission from our feast to allow the Rev. Lily Gray (Masters of Divinity pending) to lead us all in an impromptu church service, complete with bulletins, worship songs, a sermon and an offering. I have it on good authority that this service set an offertory record - $7.40. How often do you get a financial report 30 seconds after the offering is taken? Churches, feel free to borrow that idea.

After "Boxwood Pres" services we went back to the table for dessert. Their kids were very inquisitive, asking great questions about my journey and I answered them all, seeing in their eyes a young me growing up in loving family ensconced in a tight-knit small town. They changed into their Christmas pajamas and we posed for our group picture and then bedtime drew its curtain on the Gray household.

In the morning they served me a full breakfast. I even tried grits and didn't hate them. The South must be starting to rub off on me. Kelley left to take the kids to school and Alan and I remained to talk a bit more. Alan spoke of his continuing desire to sustain a church community that is marked by hospitality, especially within the congregation itself. There are built in challenges to bringing people together face to face in the modern world. Yet it can not be a coincidence that all of the world's major religions place such a premium on showing hospitality to friends and strangers alike. Ultimately it makes us more compassionately human and brings us closer to God at the same time. It brings joy to the giver and comfort to the receiver.

That Grays had gone out of their way to comfort me. Hopefully I brought a bit of joy into their house. Five years ago, dreaming in my living room about this trip, this is exactly what I envisioned it would be. As Hannibal from the A-Team used to say, "I love it when a plan comes together."


  1. just catching up today....your blog is a great read...lots of adventures and interesting people....mucho reflections. Thanks for sharing. Be safe, have fun. Dottie

  2. Everyday it's a different adventure and because of you I finally see there are really good people out there in the world! Be Safe! Twanna

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