The Day I Met God in Front of the County Jail

I gave love away, and got more love than I deserved in return.

I gave love away, and got more love than I deserved in return.

Two years ago, in a Wal-Mart parking lot, I failed God. I passed by a dejected man, standing in the sweltering middle-of-July Kansas heat. I only looked at him long enough to see his sign reading “Will Work For Food.” In my passenger seat were 20 or so ice-cold Powerades, just purchased inside, condensation beading up on chilled bottles to match the beads of sweat pouring down this man’s face. I couldn’t give him money, or food, but I could give him refreshment. And I did nothing. I ignored that small voice. I just drove on by.

All the way home, my heart ached. I knew I’d done wrong. But I didn’t turn around. Later, I begged God for forgiveness, and a second chance. Give me another chance! Please, God. Let me redeem myself. Let me serve you. Please, let me serve you.

Today, that chance came. On a job assignment that sent me delivering a fancy VIP invitation to the County Sheriff, I parked in front of the jail. I’d never been before, and felt instantly out of place in my tailored suit, low heels and clean, white skin. Up ahead, I noticed a homeless man sitting in the grass just off the sidewalk. He held no sign, and made no attempts to interact with those walking past. But there was one man walking by, who made an attempt to interact with the homeless man. He bent down, looked him in the eyes, and shook his hand. My heart swelled. The man sitting in the grass smiled a toothless grin. This acknowledgement was worth more to him than any handout.

I almost didn’t walk down the sidewalk. Why? Was I scared? If I’m a child of God, whom shall I fear? No. I would not be afraid. As my heels clicked on the sidewalk, my heart quickened as I approached the man. Would he ask for money? Would he look down as I passed? His eyes met mine, and the wild-beating heart in my chest softened with Grace. “Hello,” I offered, along with a warm smile. “Hello,” he offered back, a somewhat surprised look lighting his elderly, sun-weathered face.

Jail. It’s somewhere I’ve never been, not even as a visitor. What hit me first was the smell. It was a mix between body odor, stale cigarette smoke, and last night’s hangover. Mothers, with infant carriers over their arms, and heavy makeup on their emotion-worn faces, left the building with a sadness I’ll never know. Babies born while their father was behind bars. Women who woke up on this day of love, day of affection, only to paint their faces, dress their little ones in their best clothes, and attempt to create some kind of family togetherness in this unlikely, hostile environment.

The whole scene, the entirety of this experience, just felt like a wake-up call. I am so privileged. I have so much. I want for nothing. I whizzed through the security line, being ushered ahead of the waiting masses. A well-dressed white woman bearing gifts can open doors that others can’t. I delivered the package, and returned to the cool February air, with a smell that can only be described as “inner city.” Down that same sidewalk I traveled, back to my car not even 50 yards away. Again, I approached the homeless man.

Again, I met his eyes, and again, I smiled and said hello. This time, though, he spoke. “Ma’am, do you happen to have some spare change?” I stopped. I had nothing in my pockets. I carried no purse. But I did have something to give him. “No, I’m sorry. But I do have some Valentine’s candy in my car you can have.” He jumped up, the prospect of something, anything, putting a spring into his weary step. “No, stay here, I’ll go get it.” Although a Sheriff was just across the street, I had to take steps to ensure my own safety. He sat, and waited.

Before I left, I noticed he was digging through the bag of Valentine's goodies. I wonder what he'll do with the Hello Kitty pencils...

Before I left, I noticed he was digging through the bag of Valentine’s goodies. I wonder what he’ll do with the Hello Kitty pencils…

I walked 10 yards or so more, unlocked my car, and reached in the backseat to grab one of three goodie bags my girls had been given at various Valentine’s parties this morning. Bags filled with chocolate heart candies, Hello Kitty pencils, Little Mermaid stickers, colorful sugary squares, and most of all, love. Without thinking, I grabbed the one bag my child had made, with pastel paper hearts glued to the side.

I returned to the man, who was once again sitting, and placed the brown bag in his leathery hands. “You’re welcome to anything in here. My girls don’t need all of this sugar anyway,” I jokingly said, our eyes meeting in a shared smile. I wonder if he had kids of his own, or perhaps grandchildren. “Thank you,” he said, “Thank you so much.” As I turned to walk away, a hand appeared in front of my face, a tight fist held over a white string. “Here,” a young male voice said. Startled, I turned and saw a man probably no older than I, but whose life had obviously not treated him as well as mine. His hair was cropped close, his teeth showed signs of poor hygiene, and he had that same smell of body odor, cigarette smoke, and last night’s hangover that I’d encountered behind me in the jail’s waiting room.

“I saw what you did, and I wanted you to have this.” Floating above his hand, dancing in the strong Kansas wind, was a red heart-shaped mylar balloon. That once-hardened heart in my chest, softened by the gesture of kindness I’d seen earlier, and had just participated in, melted completely, and came pouring out as tears. I managed to stammer out a broken thank you, as the young man darted into his older model Chevy truck and drove away. I didn’t get his name, and I can’t quite remember his face, but I do remember the tear. He, too, was moved with emotion.

I walked in a daze the short distance to my car, and climbed inside, my mind spinning with disbelief. Did that really just happen? Did I really just redeem myself from that shameful summer two years ago? Did God really show up and hand me a heart-shaped balloon? On Valentine’s Day? Yes, yes he did. I know it wasn’t coincidence. I know it wasn’t some random act of kindness. God isn’t random, after all.

Today, I am grateful. Not only that God gave me another chance, but that I finally learned how to let Christ spill out. If we let ourselves be filled, and then let ourselves be spilled, he will refill our cup over and over and over. The cycle will never end. We must empty our hand if we want to receive a gift, just like I had to give love away, to receive it in return. As any good farmer knows, you reap what you sow. And if you want to harvest love, the pure, sweet manna of God, you must plant your heart in the ground.

Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed. 2 Corinthians 9:6-8

Never be afraid to give love. Today, I overcame my fear of opening up my heart to a homeless stranger. I gave love, and was given more love in return than I ever deserved. God is good, and today was the best Valentine’s Day ever.

13 Responses to The Day I Met God in Front of the County Jail

  1. Leslie Church says:

    This is beautiful, Cat. Tears on my cheeks. You showed love and you were loved right back. He is faithful.

  2. Nancy Mehl says:

    I agree with Leslie. That was beautiful, and I will remember it the next time I pass by someone who needs to know God (and I) care for them.

    God bless you.

  3. Amy says:

    This is my favorite Valentine’s Day story ever! Another verse comes to mind: “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2) I wonder if you met an angel today? And while you gave the homeless man a very special treat, he gave you something even greater in return: a reminder of God’s love and grace. You received His love and grace, and you shared it with others. What a perfect way to celebrate the perfect love of God on Valentine’s Day!

  4. This is wonderful. Heart full.

  5. Nicole Noel says:

    This made me cry. A few months back a man approached me while I was sitting outside a restaurant on a date and asked for money. He smelled awful and just wanted to be left alone so I said,”I don’t cary cash” (but I had three dollars in my purse). He stood there and wouldn’t go away so I said, “Please go away now.” I don’t know why I didn’t give him my three dollars. It would have been so easy just to reach in my wallet and give it to him, I told myself that he would probably just buy drugs with it and that it was a kind of extortion to stand by someone’s table and refuse to leave until they give you money, but mostly I was just angry that he had interjected himself into my life. I work hard and only get a small amount of time to relax and this person jumped into my life and reminded me that outside of my shiny office and my nice new car there is a world that I don’t want to see.

    I’m lucky to live and work in what I like to call, “My shiny world,” and since I stayed out of his world (what I can only guess is far from shiny), I expected him to stay out of mine. I’m deeply ashamed of these feeling and the incident ruined not only the rest of my afternoon, but the rest of my week. I never thought of myself as a selfish person, but that day I knew I was.

    My date never called me back (even though he didn’t offer the man any money either), but you know, I don’t blame him one bit. I wouldn’t have called me back either! I hope I’m given a chance to redeem myself someday. I’d like very much to be a better person than what I am and your story gives me a lot of hope that God will give me another chance to be the generous spirit he created.

    Thanks for writing this Cat.

    • cpoland says:

      Oh Nicole, we’re ALL selfish! Every single one of us. You are a beautiful person, and even the fact that you felt so remorseful about what happened shows just how loving you are. Just leave yourself open to your next chance, and it will come.

      And I was once like you. Why give them anything if they’re just going to waste it? But then, I realized that God gives us gifts freely, even when we squander away what we have.

      Love to you Nicole!

  6. cpoland says:

    Thank you all for your words and for taking a moment to share in my experience.

    • Erin O'Donnell says:

      Thank YOU, Cat. For what you did. For being open about your failings. For showing us that we can be redeemed, too.

      I think this was my favorite line because it’s just plain true, even if it’s not fair: “A well-dressed white woman bearing gifts can open doors that others can’t.”

      But then you know better gifts are waiting for us.

  7. Shana Curtis says:

    Amazing story. Reminds me of how we can all be a blessing despite where we are in life. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Sheri says:

    What a wonderful story. It’s good to be reminded what joy a small act of kindness can bring….and then there’s the ripple effect.

  9. Penny says:

    Cat, you have once again blessed me with your words. I feel inspired to hand out valentine candy! ~~Your a special lady~~

  10. Kristin says:

    I’m late to this love-fest, but oh! I’m so glad I came. I’ve been in the drive-by situation many times – heart heavy and regretful. There’s always a reason. They kids are with me, there is alcohol involved, I don’t have a small bill to give (as if I couldn’t give a $20 once in a while), and so on. And then sometimes – sometimes – I feel like I am making up for all the small misses. Thank you for this lovely reminder that we should never be afraid to give love. And we should never be afraid to say thank you for someone else.

    • cpoland says:

      You’re always welcome at my love fests! :-) And thank you for sharing in this story. Still can’t quite believe it happened to me.

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