At the end of my freshmen year, my ambition got the worst of me and I was completely oblivious to the fact that I had made very little impact on campus and was barely unknown. I had never clued in to the fact that this wasn’t high school, that there were 10 students for every 1 in my previous school, that I had lived in a dorm that hosted only 70 or 80, had been in no general education classes, and that the program I had focused on that year, theology was incredibly small. When the dean of my dorm was asked for a recommendation, he said he didn’t know me. I ran for religious vice president and was destroyed in the election. This was the first time I had ever run for an election and lost and the fact that I was a small fish in a bigger pond sunk in. I think the unknown factor wasn’t the only reason I lost, my personality being what it is and my opponent having been a much bigger on campus presence contributed but it still really stung.
I realized I would have to work on many things but my main concern as the year was ending was trying to get Shannon to come and attend school there. She was also valedictorian of her class and was eligible to receive a similar scholarship to what I had. In no time at all, she was on campus a few weeks before school started working with Donica Ward and Craig Philpott a job she held all four years of her college career. Being in the same place helped our relationship a lot. She would meet Natalie and Shelly as well. Eventually they all became friends (independently, Natalie and Shelly weren’t really friends) and we hung out a lot.
I bought my first car that summer for $1200 and Shannon and I had transportation. This ended up being a big deal because shortly after I bought it I was listening to a sermon where the pastor said that the modern version of doing unto the least of these were consistent, random acts of kindness consistently, whether it was giving change to someone on the corner, volunteering at a local organization, picking up hitchhikers etc. For some reason, having just gotten a car, I decided right there and then that I would pick up every hitchhiker I ever saw (a pledge I’ve kept until this day as long as I am alone or the people in the car are okay with it). Some great human interest stories have occurred due to this decision, but most of them are of course non-stories: just someone needing a ride maybe due to car problems or a lack of transportation.
I’ve always appreciated these types of sermons perhaps because it appeals to my nature to do something but also because I love the concept of Jesus calling his believers the salt of the earth, the light of the world. Adventists, for reasons I have never understood, appear to create these very insulated communities, at least with their schools and universities which are overwhelmingly attended by only Adventists as opposed to say Catholic schools or even the Mormon universities which have a much bigger percentage of people who don’t belong to their faith. They become a place to protect the faith, where sharing it often happened only during very intentional evangelistic times, instead creating a quiet force that one couldn’t help but notice. It’s like we keep the salt in its shaker and on occasion when that unusual single grain of salt makes it out, the rest of us salt grains press up against the glass and cheer it on.
There was one weekend where I had been invited to speak to a high school leadership camp similar to many of the ones I’d attended in high school. I was going to give a brief sermonette on Friday night as Sabbath set in. I was headed down the main street to campus about an hour before we were supposed to go out of town. There were going to be several of us going from PUC with different parts of the program and I was in a hurry so I originally bypassed a man on the side of the road, but I did a U-turn determined to keep my pledge. He was a man in his midforties who immediately expressed his gratefulness and had actually noticed that I had turned around. He continued on saying that he regularly hitchhiked in his life and that the hardest time he ever had being picked up was in Angwin; he didn’t know much about the Adventist faith but he knew that it was an Adventist town essentially. I was really bothered by this, wondering why God’s people were the stingiest about giving a stranger a ride.
We continued to talk and he was by far the most fascinating person I had ever picked up. He began to tell me this story about how he was an environmental engineer and had been doing it for over 15 years. A little over 10 years before, he had become homeless because he found that his ability to be mobile and work on certain projects was helped by him not being tethered to many possessions. It was difficult to believe but he was so well spoken and the little that I knew about environmental engineering seemed to match up with what he was saying. I asked him how he took care of himself and very humbly he responded with the fact that God always provided. I sanctimoniously apologized for the fact that he had such a hard time getting picked up in Angwin and then took out the $40 I had taken out of my bank account for the weekend and said “Well today I am God’s providence for you.” He tried to refuse saying things were fine and that the ride was more than enough but I insisted and he finally took it. I then shared with him that I was going this weekend to speak to a bunch of high school teenagers who were leaders on their campus and I was going to give them some tips. A few minutes later, I dropped him off and he walked around to my window and said in an incredibly humble and genuine manner, “When you talk to those kids, tell them that true leadership is about following. It’s about following Jesus because if you follow him and people follow you, you’re all going to the right place.” He shook my hand and walked away.
As I drove back to meet with the rest of the group, I was feeling really shamefaced about how self righteous I had been. I was feeling guilty about having been smug, about having been more Christian than most of my Adventist brethren because I had the courtesy to pick this guy up. I realized that I didn’t want my Christian position to be one of superiority where I was showing you the way but that I wanted to be nobler, like this man who had literally given up house and home because he so passionately believed in the environment.
I shared this story when I was speaking at the leadership conference later that night. I tried to communicate that leadership was a privilege and that we were merely vessels. I told the story of that man and what had transpired that afternoon including what he said at my window. I added “and the man who should be speaking to you today is probably sleeping under the stars tonight and I didn’t even have the courtesy to ask his name.”
I can’t say that I’ve consistently abandoned my occasional haughtiness about the fact that I spend time volunteering to help people, but I did that day decide that I wanted my ministry in life to be a bigger part of my life; to have it be more practical and more to the least of these. I started looking around campus for a way to help more people, to get more actively involved than just preaching. I felt guilty for years about the approach I had taken with that guy and about the fact that I’d never asked his name. If nothing else, with every hitchhiker I’ve picked up since then, the first things I do are to extend my hand and ask, “What’s your name?”