Monday, November 9, 2009

The WalMart Preacherman

     An outing to WalMart is an occasion unto itself. You never know who you'll see, what you'll see, or why you'll see what you do see.  Some things are bizarre, some are absurd, some are puzzling, some are incredible. On any given day, the experience will be as uniquely different as the people who shop there, but it will definitely be an experience! And that, my friends, is why I love to go.
     A few weeks ago on a Friday afternoon, I had to run by to pick up some benadryl, kleenex, coffee, and notebook paper. How could you not a love a place where you can satisfy your need to sniff, wipe, sip, and write all in one stop?
     There was a man playing a saxophone that day on the sidewalk between WalMart and Food Lion. He had two huge speakers mounted on tripods that blasted the notes into the parking lot as shoppers entered and left the store. My first reaction was, "How nice. This must be like Friday Cheers in Richmond.....a little free jazz to kick off the weekend."
     I smiled at him as I dashed into the store, not really paying much attention to the cloth-covered table behind him loaded with brochures.
       "That's a nice touch for Walmart, " I thought as I sauntered through the aisles, humming a few bars of the melody while I shopped.
     When I came out of the store with my bags, however, the music had stopped and the saxophone had disappeared. In it's place stood a hellfire and brimstone preacherman. He was marching up and down the sidewalk, waving a Bible and shouting out a sermon that would have scared most people away from hell. The shoppers heading into Walmart either veered across the parking lot to the far entrance, or smiled and nodded to the preacherman, some even offering up an "Amen, brother" as they walked inside.  I wasn't quite sure what the appropriate response to a discount preacher should be, so I simply headed to my car, threw my bag into the back seat, and drove away.
     I returned again the next week, and he was back in business. This time he had several of his devoted congregants sitting behind him, nodding and offering support as he shouted to the sinners in the parking lot, myself being one of them. I sat in my car with the windows rolled down and listened to his sermon for awhile, to see if I could glean any pearls of wisdom from this WalMart preacher. I couldn't quite figure out why he had chosen this particular spot between the world's largest discount retailer and the king of the grocery chains to proclaim the gospel of Christ. His message did not target our sins of mass consumerism, as I had expected, but focused instead on God's grace in a fallen world. Although his choice of location and mode of delivery were not in my comfort zone,  I appreciated his efforts and sincerely hoped God's grace would be felt by someone, somewhere in the midst of WalMart.
     Today, Sissey and I made a quick stop to pick up a few things we needed  before rushing home to finish up some school projects. After a long day at school, she was tired and using her wheelchair instead of her walker. We were zipping through the aisles at a brisk clip, throwing items into the basket as we crossed them off our shopping list. She had been feeling a little blue lately, missing her best friend in Richmond, missing her dad, missing her home, missing her brother, missing going to the coffee shop with her girlfriends.  I had been trying to think of activities that could keep her occupied when those low moments hovered around the corner, something that would make her feel more connected with her new community, introduce her to some new faces, give her some "fun-time" to break up her rigorous study routine. An outing to WalMart wasn't exactly a trip to Disneyland, but it was an outing none-the-less, and it ate up some free time before she had to hit the books again.
     As we rounded a corner between the frozen food aisle and the cleaning products, we ran headfirst into a man in a wheelchair. It was one of those awkward moments when you don't know who's supposed to step aside to let the other pass, so you kind of bob and weave to see who goes first.
      "Come on around, young lady," he said as he stopped his chair and smiled at Sissey, "I haven't seen you around here before."
       "No," she answered, "I just came down from Richmond in August to go to school here. My name is Mary Lapsley Daly. It's a pleasure to meet you."
        She extended her hand for a friendly shake.
       "Hey," he replied. "I'm Lee Carter. It's a pleasure to meet you too! I grew up here, but I left in 1977."
        "Really? I graduated in 1979. We must have gone to school together," I interjected, telling him my maiden name, the names of my brother and sisters, my parent's names, the year I graduated from college, the color and model of the car I drove, the names of my dogs -- everything short of my social security number. It's how we do things down here to find out exactly how well we are supposed to know someone. I didn't recognize him, but after being away for thirty years, some of us have changed quite a bit.
        "I left town years ago to join the army and served 23 years before coming back," Lee said.
        I asked him if he had been injured during his military service and if that was how he had ended up in a wheelchair.
       "You'd think that if anything was going to happen to me, it would have happened in the 23 years I was in the service. But no, I waited until I retired, then fell out of a pecan tree."
     He laughed as he said it, in the way only someone who has walked through hell and come back alive can do.  He then told Sissey about a support group he had founded after his injury, a group that met on a monthly basis, had grown and expanded to include Rock Hill , and that had a party coming up next Tuesday.
      "Come on and join us. It's a lot of fun. We're having Christmas in November next week, over forty-five people will be there. You'll really get a lot out of it and it'll be a great party!"
       He pulled out a business card with the name of the group and his number on it, told her the time and location of the event and said she didn't need to bring anything with her when she came.
      "Call if you have any questions... I'll be looking for you next Tuesday."
        He smiled, waved goodbye and rolled away.
       We paid for our purchases and started to head for the car. I was pushing the buggy, which was loaded with merchandise, while Sissey pushed her wheelchair out the door. We were both struggling with the buggies, bags, and doors, when suddenly, a young man came up from behind and asked,
       "May I help you take that to the car?"
       My first instinct was to say "No," thinking he could be a thief or a scam artist, intent on robbing us of our purchases and purses as we crossed the dark parking lot, but for some reason, I decided to say,
" Absolutely! That would be a big help!"
      He grabbed the buggy and I grabbed the wheelchair as we headed to the car. He unloaded all the bags into the back for me while I helped Sissey get into her seat and then folded up the wheelchair.
      Before he left, he said, "I was in one of those chairs for six months."
       "You were? What happened?" we both asked.
       "I was in the service and had a little too much fun on one of my military leaves.  Had an accident and was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. I know what it's like having to use a wheelchair. I sat in one for half a year. Ya'll have a good day, now."
      And with that, he left.
     I had to pause for a moment to ponder what had just happened. We had only come in to pick up some school supplies and a few groceries, but we left with an invitation for Sissey to join a support group, attend a party, and make 45 new friends. I left with a redeeming moment of faith in the goodness of man.  I hadn't expected it or been looking for it, but I knew the grace of God had been in WalMart today.
     And that, my friends, is why I love to go.

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