Silver and Gold
“If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has not pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” (1 John 3:17-20)
Her name is Rachel and although she is an American Indian, the months of chemotherapy left her skin completely bleached. Her face was drawn, and she tried to hide her bald head under a black scarf and a much too large ball cap. She carried her few belongings in an open cardboard box.
Carol and I came across Rachel in a Texas hotel hallway shortly after Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans. I expected a quiet elevator ride to the first floor, but Carol spoke to the woman, “You must be from Louisiana. What has it been like for you?”
Men don’t do that. We hold elevator doors and hope for the best. But that one question from Carol opened Rachel up, and the words started rolling. The weariness, discouragement, fear and loss poured out of her. For 20 minutes we stood together by Rachel’s car in the intense Texas heat. Sweat streamed down her face from under her scarf.
I remember Rachel’s eyes grew larger as she gave all of her effort to helping us understand what it had been like in New Orleans when the levees broke and everyone realized they were trapped and separated. In spite of her loss, she was headed back there to those she loved – with money, food and whatever support she could manage. I fidgeted but Carol kept her talking. I heard things I didn’t want to hear. I was impatient because I felt my head – not my heart – condemning me that I was just standing there when I should be doing something practical to help…and there was only one thing I knew to do.
I asked Rachel how many nights she had been at the hotel, and when she answered “just one,” I excused myself to walk inside to the registration desk to “fix her problem.” To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.
“There’s a woman who stayed the night here, and I want you to put her bill on my card,” I said. The clerk found her record and said he would make the change. “By the way,” he said as I was walking away, “she stayed in the Jacuzzi suite.”
When he told me the rate I was a little stunned. Didn’t Rachel know people in trouble stay – like me – in the cheapest rooms? For a moment I considered changing my mind but knew that would spoil my minute of humble generosity. My head – still not my heart – was soundly chiding me for being so impetuous. I walked out the door and looked across the parking lot at Carol and Rachel still talking, and suddenly my heart awakened. I realized Carol’s genuine listening had been the gift most needed…and I had missed it in my impatience to fix what I saw was a problem.
Rachel did not need money. She booked that specific room because she needed relief from her pain, and she fully intended to pay for it herself. She wasn’t destitute. She was alone, and she was fearful for her family and loved ones. Rachel had survived a life of storms and would doubtless make it through this one as well.
“You took care of her bill, didn’t you?” Carol asked when we left. I tried to imagine Rachel’s surprise at finding her charges paid. Would she be relieved or offended or surprised? Had my hurried gift given her encouragement and hope and the assurance that there are people who care? Perhaps. But I knew for sure that Carol’s simple gift of listening and sincere empathy had given Rachel what “silver and gold” could not. Carol had given her the attention, respect and love that John describes in the passage above.
Still, the grace for me is in the last verse. God is truly greater than our minds or hearts and he knew we both gave what we had to give.