Rev. Neil O’Farrell discovers where we might find peace on earth
Just like there are at many churches, my church has two Christmas Eve services. One in the early evening is billed as the family service, with lots of adrenalized youngsters. Later on, there is a candle-lit service that is quiet and contemplative, for adults mainly. Between the two services, I have several hours to kill. Usually, I’m hungry, and the only place to get something to eat is the Asian carry out on the main street of the inner city neighborhood where the church is located.
The only person I’ve ever seen behind the counter of the carry out is an Asian woman with a heavy accent. She is a little sprite of a woman, but tough as nails. She runs her restaurant as a drill sergeant might run Marine grunts at a quick clip across an obstacle course. She knows me and what I always order: vegetable Lo Mein. She starts writing what I’m going to get as soon as she sees me at the door.
One Christmas Eve when I walked in the door, there was a young African-American man looking up at the menu to decide what to order. He was holding a few crumpled bills in his hand. As usual, the woman behind the counter started writing out my typical order, although the other man was certainly in line before me. I told her that he was first and I was in no hurry. I could see him calculating what he could afford with the dollars in his hand.
Now, I know there is a fraught relationship in some city neighborhoods. Often there are plexi-glass barriers with all the merchandise behind the clear but usually scratched up safety bunker. Shoppers have to virtually yell what they want to the attendants because the barrier is so thick to prevent a gun robbery, but the barrier also muffles all speech.
Money is placed into a turnstile, and the merchandise is put into the same turnstile for the customer to pick it up, usually with leftover change after the purchase is run through the cash register.
Surprisingly, this particular carry-out has no barriers, even though other neighborhood businesses do. I’ve always thought it was because the restaurant owner brooks no nonsense. The young African-American man asked about several dishes, but she largely refused to answer his questions. Since I knew what was in the dishes, I tried to help him, but she abruptly left the counter at that point to start cooking my order.
I don’t want to make her the villain in this story. She is tough because she has to be to run a business in this neighborhood. Life had not handed her, or the African-American youth, an easy lot.
While I was waiting, I saw his shoulders fall, his eyes cast downward, and he walked out of the restaurant into the cold. When I received and paid for my dinner, I left the diner and found the young man, his girlfriend, and a friendly dog who was wagging his tail. All three were standing in front of the glaring lights of the restaurant. They were talking about where they could get something to eat and what they could afford. They were hungry and dejected, and it was cold. Only the dog was oblivious to the dank air.
I spoke to them warmly, and they smiled a little bit. I was dressed in clerical garb and they knew I was safe. The dog continued to wag his tail. I told them there was a Royal Farms—one of those sandwich and junk food shops—a couple of blocks away. I pulled 20 dollars from my wallet and gave it to them. I stooped down and patted the dog, even though he left a trail of shedding dog fur across my black coat, and wished them a Merry Christmas.
They started walking off into the night to the desultory sandwich shop. I had gotten a little smile from the couple, and they too wished me a Merry Christmas but shyly.
As they got further and further down the street, in the winter shadows, eventually they were hard to make out. But the last image I had of them was being able to see the dog, and he continued to wag his tail as they made their way down the block. I smiled.
Something magical happened in that stable long ago. Two thousand years later, something magical happened at a carry-out when strangers and a happy, friendly dog discovered how to wish each other a Merry Christmas—and mean it as new found, fast friends.
Photo: Yevy Photography/Flickr