What I have come to love most about this place, Montreat, is that it always brings my mind alive. It always awakens me to some hope, some dream. It always transports me to some memory of a special time in my life. I always find myself desperate to carve out some time and space when I am here to write while the waters rush by, singing a swirling song to my heart.
Last night in worship, the preacher spoke about the story of Ruth and Naomi (one of my favorites) and he expressed that his desire for the church was to widen our circles. He shared this wonderful story about his parents, who were from Mexico, taking their first trip to Europe, and about their visit to London. The two of them, who spoke very little English, found themselves turned around in a tube station, unable to figure out how to get back to their hotel. A very tall Englishman guided them to the right place.
In listening to this tale, I recall my own first encounter with a tall Englishman. My friends and I met him on a train from London to Edinburgh thirteen years ago. The story didn’t begin positively. The train was waiting an inordinately long amount of time to leave the station. But when we boarded we discovered that we could not sit together at one of the two benches with a table in the middle, but rather we had to split up because this one, selfish jerk was taking up a whole table with his lanky frame, nose stuck in a newspaper. So, we were griping (probably mostly me) as all loud, touristy Americans do. Yes, yes—his thoughts—little did we know at the time was, “Oh, Lord help me, I am trapped on a train with four atrocious American girls.” Two of my friends sit down across from him at the table. Eventually sheer boredom prompts them to ask him for the Crossword section of the paper. And so it began; by the time of our arrival in Edinburgh we were friends.
Alec is a navy man, about six years older than myself. Over the course of our three months studying abroad, our friendship grew with Alec. He became “Big Al” and we his, “American Girls” (in the best British accent I can muster). I think perhaps he felt a protectiveness of us. He would call to check in when we were traveling outside England, he would count us like little ducklings if we went out to the pubs. He harassed us with brotherly love.
One of my favorite experiences of my time abroad was when Alec invited us to come to his family home in Torquay, along the coast, to celebrate his 30th birthday. We got to meet his sweet parents and all his siblings. They opened their home to us and made us feel like a part of their family. To this day we keep in touch with Big Al, we are always thrilled to hear if he is coming to the states and we have had occasions to welcome him on our home soil. We teased him mercilessly that we would all wear big, floppy hats to his wedding….I can’t for the life of me figure out why we weren’t invited!😉
Just by sharing a portion of his newspaper (however reluctant at first), Alec helped me to widen my circle. Without him, I would never have visited Torquay; I would have never witnessed the absolute joy of their large family. I never would have had these wonderful memories with dear friends or captured this photo of my Hollins sisters that remains framed in my home, my absolute favorite. By befriending four college students from Hollins University, he widened his own circle and showed endless hospitality to us. Never underestimate the power of radical hospitality.
So today I am thankful for opportunities to travel with my sisters, for the blessing of unlikely friendships, for my own transformative encounter with a tall Englishman.