This past Monday I departed Charlotte on my way to the Credo conference. Credo is clergy wellness conference that the Church Pension Group sponsors. The idea is to assess all areas of our lives: physical, mental, spiritual, vocational, and financial so that we can continue to be healthy, happy, productive people for God. Now, I had some concerns about this conference because it was being held at Salter Path NC, on the Atlantic coast, hurricane Matthew was in that very spot a few days prior to my departure. On Sunday I received a call that the storm had passed and it was all systems go for the conference.
As I left Charlotte and approached the small hamlet of Hamlet NC, I noticed that there were lots of people in line at the gas stations: lots, like maybe a ¼ mile of cars lined up. I called the conference center to ask them if anything was wrong between Hamlet and Salter Path, “Well, no, things are fine, we all lost power for a few days but I guess people are now able to get out. You know, some folks panic.” So I kept driving on, eventually I myself needed to stop for gas and stopped near Whiteville, the first three gas stations I stopped at had no gas or power. All of them had signs on the doors with my new least-favorite words “No gas, cash only.”
Once I drove through Whiteville by way of some back road, dodging giant oaks that were partially in the road and driving carefully across inches deep water, I noticed that the entire city was without power and was indeed in great crisis. I decided to just keep moving, to get on 74 East and hope for the best. 74 was closed by police in either direction. I asked the police how to best get to Salter Path, they didn’t know, they weren’t local. So I let the navigation software do the work, I found an alternate route and got going.
Soon after leaving town I found that the road I was supposed to take had turned into a river, a very large active river. I made a note of that on the navigation software and pulled over to consider my options. I called my wife. She basically became Houston to my Apollo mission. She checked and called for places that had gas. We found one in the next town, Clarkton, just a few miles to the north. My gas was really low at this point but Clarkton looked to only be about 8 miles away; I’d limp there as much as possible and then perhaps need to walk if I ran out of gas. I can be a little slow on the uptick so it was then that I realized that Hamlet was basically my last chance for gas many miles ago, indeed I had been in a trap for a long time before I even realized it.
About three miles out of Whiteville I ran out of gas.
Running out of gas is one thing. Running out of gas in a disaster area is quite another. I was no longer a tourist passing through and gawking at the damage, safely ensconced in my security. I was now a local. I didn’t know what to do and I could feel myself panicking. A very long convoy of fire trucks rolled past me on the way to Whiteville. I got out of the car, breathed. I prayed for Jesus to be with me, a prayer practice that I do daily: Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner. I love this prayer, it has saved me so many times. Mercy of course means to have compassion and presence. Jesus be with me in this moment. I was safe, mostly. I had breath and heartbeat. I weighed my options and stuck out of thumb.
I can’t remember if I’ve ever hitchhiked before. It’s interesting. You can make eye contact with people as they drive past. Here I was, nice chubby guy in Costco slacks, brown leather shoes, gingham button down shirt, and Ray-Bans. No one stopped. But after a couple of minutes an older black man in a 1992 Cougar (I learned all this about his car later) stopped and asked if I was out of gas. “Yes.” “OK, you want to come with me to Clarkton and get gas?” “Yes please.” He was driving in caravan with his son-in-law so he grabbed his son-in-law’s gas can and off we went. First off I realized that Clarkton would be no quick drive, the road that lead directly there was closed due to flooding. We had to take many detours.
The man who stopped is named Kenteny. I learned a lot about him. I learned that his son in law is a preacher. I learned that Kenteny is unemployed. He is a strong believer in God. His wife caters weddings and events. He smokes. He also was in Whiteville helping a friend there and was on his way home in Clarkton, he was hoping not to run out of gas. He called me Preacher Man after I told what I do for a living. After a half-hour of driving we made it to Clarkton, walking would have been disastrous.
There was a very long line at the gas station. We got in line and waited, it would be a long wait.
I kept thanking him, knowing that I was pressing my luck with him. He certainly didn’t anticipate all this. As we waited I scoped out the situation, went into the gas station. They had power but the internet was down and so was the phone so that meant no credit cards: cash only. No problem, I’ll just use the ATM: “broken cable,” on account of the internet I suppose. I went across the street knowing that cash was the only option. Strike two. There was a bank, last option. Praise be unto Jesus! It worked. Cash in hand I went to the Subway to get me and Kenteny lunch. They were sold out of almost everything so I got us steak, the only meat left. Cash only of course.
We ate in the car. Talked. Watched funny things happen like this young man and his horse.
He was showing off for a while but then he started taking kids on rides. There was a young white kid who stuck his head in “our” car and chatted us up for an hour. He was obviously very poor and his accent was so profound it almost sounded British. I looked around at this scene and sincerely wondered if I were in heaven.
Two hours. Two hours in line for gas. I filled the fuel canister and bought Kenteny gas and we were en route back to my car. On the way there he became very emotional and said that he had never had a full tank of gas in that car and that I had been a blessing to him. I replied that I could never had been a blessing to him if he had not first been a blessing to me. He asked what he supposed to do, just leave me on the side of the road? Jesus made him stop. We both spoke, we both thanked God for the kind of life that allows us to live these Jesus-lives. It reminded me of the book of Acts when it talks about the apostles going along the road giving praise to God. But I also know that I was living the Widow’s Mite and the Good Samaritan because this man had given out of his poverty and also I was being treated as a neighbor.
We got back to the car and put the gas in. We exchanged phone numbers and Kenteny said that he would escort me to a further town that was in good shape and I could fill up there. I told him he had done more than enough already and that he should just go his own way. He refused, saying “We got you this far, let me see you on your way, you need to make it to that conference because they need your voice and testimony!!” Ok.
We drove about 40 minutes to another town close to the road I needed to take. We only had to wait about 20 minutes for gas, I tanked up. I thanked Kenteny profusely. This is him at our last stop.
He asked that I call him when I got to my final destination. That’s not right, he kept saying, destiny. “Call me when you get to your destiny.” I really like that.
Kenteny is not an angel and he is not Jesus. He a man who has allowed God’s loving life to penetrate his own, to mold and shape him. Kenteny is a man who has sinned against God and neighbor, without a doubt. And while he is a sinner he is also a saint, a life that recognizes that the things that matter most in earth and heaven is relationship and reaching out to those in need. I was in need and he reached out. Thank you my brother. I’ll do my best to do the same for someone else.
I can't help but wonder and mourn over those relationships that I have lost out on because I was too secure, too strong, too scheduled to allow to emerge. Thankfully, sometimes God is an empty gas tank and he forces the issue.