Every November, I remember the year my husband and I chose to meet a need in our community for Christmas rather than buy gifts for each other. We knew God would lead us to a need, so we opened our ears to listen and our hearts to hear God’s still, small voice amid the Christmas cheer.
Earlier that year, I began serving as a volunteer counselor with the Urban Ministry Center (UMC) in Charlotte, North Carolina. At the UMC, clients were called neighbors, and the counseling program was called a listening ministry. During training, staff encouraged volunteers to listen beyond the crisis, learn a person's story, and pray with them if given the opportunity.
Week after week, neighbors stepped into my tiny counseling room. After our initial greeting, I asked, "What brings you in today?" During the next thirty seconds, individuals rattled off a list of negative experiences and ended with a request for housing, employment, transportation, etc. This was a common pattern for neighbors because humans often give limited attention to pain and suffering. Many neighbors were surprised when I asked them to tell me their story. As the neighbors shared their stories, they found stillness in the chaos, and I could listen beyond their crisis.
One afternoon, Charles (not his real name) ducked his head under the doorway to enter the tiny counseling room. He was six feet and five inches tall, slender, and had a gentle spirit. Frustrated and broken, Charles shared how difficult it was to interview for jobs in North Carolina compared to back home in Ohio. I asked, "What brings you to Charlotte?" He looked at the wall and began sharing his story. About two weeks previously, his wife told him that she did not love him anymore and was leaving him. His heart was crushed; he felt his life was over. He could no longer live in the same house, town, or state because everything reminded him of her. He got on a bus, headed south, and stepped off the bus to begin his new life in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Over the past few weeks, Charles had slept in an abandoned warehouse at night and interviewed for chef positions during the day. He had worked eight years as a chef for a charming couple at a family-owned restaurant in Ohio. After receiving the news from his wife, he was in so much pain that he left town without explaining to his employers. After numerous job rejections, he realized that leaving without notice was a mistake because his job applications lacked an address and a key reference.
As he looked down, Charles spoke about wearing two pairs of pants. The outer pants were filthy, but they kept the pants underneath clean while he slept on the warehouse's dirty floor at night and sat on the outside benches during the day. Over the past two weeks, he knew his lack of references and disheveled appearance limited his employment opportunities in Charlotte.
After sharing his story, Charles requested a bus pass and interview clothes. He had an interview scheduled the following day at a prestigious restaurant a few miles away from Uptown Charlotte. From his past experiences, he realized his clothes would prevent a good first impression during the interview. Since I had eaten at the restaurant, I knew he was right; his clothes were not suitable for an interview at that restaurant. I also knew that the Urban Ministry provided bus passes but not clothes. Neighbors were referred to Crisis Assistance Ministry, a non-profit organization a mile away that provided free clothes for individuals with low income or without a home; however, for a man over six feet tall, Crisis Assistance Ministry most likely would not have clothes in his size, especially interview clothes.
Suddenly, I felt the Holy Spirit nudge: a still, small voice deep within me started to rise; this was the Christmas need. At that moment, I knew my husband and I needed to buy interview clothes for Charles. I asked him to return to UMC the next day and pick up the interview clothes. I wrote down his sizes and told him he would have the attire he needed the next day.
After my volunteer shift, I called my husband, and he agreed that the interview clothing was the perfect Christmas present. I went shopping at a nearby big and tall store where the pants were up to my shoulders in length, and the shirts were brightly colored. I purchased an outfit and dropped it off at the Urban Ministry: a sport coat, soft blue shirt, navy checkered tie, and tan slacks. I included my business card on which I wrote, “I’ll be praying for your 1:00 p.m. interview.”
I prayed for his interview and noticed how I felt I was praying for a friend rather than a stranger. Although I never heard back from Charles, I thought of him often, especially while driving past the upscale restaurant he interviewed or listening to a neighbor's story about life without a home. My prayers continued for him to secure a chef job and allow his heart time to heal.
Reed and I moved from North Carolina to Virginia a few years later. Before we left, a kind couple invited us to a restaurant for a meal and to share our goodbyes. As I opened the restaurant's front door, a flood of memories rushed into my mind about Charles interviewing at that exact restaurant years ago. After we sat at the table, we told our friends the chef's story and about buying him interview clothes for Christmas that year.
After the story, we reviewed the menus. I flipped my menu over and scanned down to the bottom of the menu, where I discovered a list of current chefs. My eyes filled with tears when I noticed Charles's name on the list.
I waited with excitement for our waitress to return to our table. I asked her if Chef Charles was in the kitchen. She responded with a smile, "No. Unfortunately, Mondays are his days off."
Although I would have loved to have seen Charles in his chef hat, introduced him to my husband, and shook his hand or hugged his neck, our encounter would have been more meaningful for me than for him. I am grateful to God for allowing our paths to cross on a November day when he ducked his head into the counseling room, shared his story, and humbled himself to receive help from a stranger. On one of our last nights in the Queen City, God allowed our paths to cross again, but this time, I was the humble receiver. While our friends, my husband, and I sat around the table, I realized the importance of saying goodbye to charming couples before moving on to a new place to call home.