I made a new friend at the Vancouver Goodwill last week. I was taking care of some dull piece of business at the counter when an employee I had never met, Greg, came by and noticed my tee shirt. I happened to be wearing my “Negro Baseball League” shirt, which was discarded in the laundry room of my last residence and is how I came to be in possession of it. I imagine it was left by someone who wasn’t black; otherwise, it would have been kept. I make this statement because it was new; its decals weren’t cracked or faded. Besides the beautiful design on the front, the shirt had on its back the names and professional logos of all 20 NBL teams, along with the years when each was drafted into the league.
For those who don’t know about the NBL, it used to be its own separate league back when America was still doing the segregation thing. During those years, black baseball players could break all the records they wanted, but it didn’t count because the stats were snubbed by Major League Baseball. This was a significant injustice since there were some extraordinary players in the league, some of whose records would stand to this day if they had been recognized. One such player was Satchel Page, who not only possessed phenomenal athletic ability but was a certified wordsmith as well. Many memorable quotes are attributed to him.
When I found the tee shirt, I loved the look of it but, incidentally, I was also short on wardrobe at the time. So I adopted the shirt and started wearing it to work. I made jokes about having to quit the league when people laughed at me for wearing an NBL tee shirt. It was quite the conversation piece!
Then, last week at Goodwill, my new friend Greg was walking by, noticed the shirt and commented, “Nice shirt.” (Greg is African American.) I agreed and showed him the logos on the back. I could tell his mouth was watering. He told me, “You need to give that up.”
It was one of those situations that often move me to commit random acts of kindness, and this was no exception. I told him, “I can tell you really like the shirt, so you should have it.” He gave me his business card so I could mail it to him. I didn’t explain my transportation predicament, but I’m sure he figured out that I was pedaling and lived miles away; hence, the plan to mail the shirt to him. Now, however, I think I might actually go in there and give it to him. I can use the trip to accomplish other things, and this way I can see his expression when I give him the tee shirt.
How do I say this without seeming to call attention to some imagined nobility on my part? This is the sort of thing that lots of people say they’re going to do but which few people actually do. I made up my mind on the spot that I was going to follow through on this. Over the last few years, I have become aware of a deepening sense of regret over my unfortunate tendency to make promises without following through. I’m tired of feeling like a flake, so I resolved that I’m not going to do this anymore. I’m sure I’ll get stuck doing some very difficult and inconvenient things, but this is the process by which people learn not to make commitments offhandedly. It is our commitments, not our follow-through, that must be adjusted to our means.
What a lot of substance there turned out to be in one little 60-second encounter! Lessons on joy, social awareness, wisdom and virtue, all for the price of a few seconds of paying attention to God’s creatures around me. I haven’t even had a proper conversation with Greg so far, and I’m enough of a realist to admit that perhaps there won’t be any great social developments from this (such as a lifelong friendship). I’m okay with this. Sometimes these things remain in the miscellaneous file, and that’s fine. There are some great memories in that file (which, by the way, I am tentatively dubbing the “Accidental Blessings” file). Thank you, Lord, for keeping the great blessings hopper in the sky going. What would we do without you?
I finally delivered the tee-shirt to Greg yesterday. Judging by his amazement at being presented with the shirt, he had not really expected me to go to the trouble of getting the item to him. It is as I surmised: people say things like this all the time and rarely follow through. The reality of this disconnect is chalked up to life as usual, but it is a socio-cultural crisis of integrity.
After nearly three weeks, Greg had forgotten all about the conversation and the shirt. When I had him summoned to the receptionist’s desk at Goodwill, he didn’t register any recognition as he looked at me. Of course, we had only met once, and our conversation had been brief. I held the folded tee-shirt out to him (which I had laundered), and he simply looked at it dumbly, even as I was recapping our initial meeting to him. The scene was equal parts awkward and glorious.
When he finally realized what was happening, Greg’s countenance suddenly burst into an expression of astonished pleasure. He really couldn’t believe that I had done such a thing for a total stranger. He thanked me and shook my hand no less than three times! Then he asked me what he owed me.
This was my favorite part of the encounter. I replied: “Just a smile and a ‘praise God.’”