Growing up my family did a lot of camping. Our faith life was always incorporated. No matter where we were, we would find a way to practice. Sometimes there was even a mass at the campground where we were staying. Often, I carried this with me into my 20’s camping with my college roommates.
Once, in Maine, though I hadn’t looked into it ahead of time, I woke early on a Sunday morning and ventured out to find a church service. My friends were late risers. It was only a few miles before I ran across a small white church nestled in a hillside. I guess it really didn’t occur me that others at that mass could also be visitors to the parish. I found myself middle row and centered to the alter.
It was a full church and people were elbow to elbow with me on either side. When I became aware of the woman beside me, I don’t really recall now. In general, I am usually fairly outgoing, so I am sure I said good morning to those around me. There was not, however, any real connection formed other than polite acknowledgement. Nothing specific about the readings or surroundings stick in my mind.
During the reciting of the Our Father Prayer, I reached my hand out toward the woman next to me to hold hands as we prayed. Surprised, she hesitated a moment and then wrapped her hand tightly in mine. It was a gesture that I don’t always engage in. On this day, I recall an urge to connect, even if for a few moments.
During the prayer, we held tightly to one another, raising our hands toward the end and when the prayer was finished, gave one last squeeze. For those of you reading who are Catholic, you know the sign of peace comes next. As I turned to this woman to exchange what I expected to be a warm handshake, she embraced me exuberantly and thanked me. She seemed very moved.
I can’t recall how I exited the church, but I remember the sunshine warming the hillside as the people mingled out on the lawn. Even though I didn’t know anyone, I walked around the grounds and among the people enjoying the energy and realizing that I was searching the crowd for the woman with whom I had shared such a brief powerful connection during mass. It seemed she also had been searching for me. I caught her gaze from across a couple of groups and we wove our way toward each other.
Alice, I found out, was a housekeeper who was living in Virginia and vacationing like I was in the area. She told me about some losses she had recently experienced and that during the mass, she had been feeling very sad and alone. It had been unexpected, but profound when I offered my hand. For me, it seemed such a small gesture, yet she went on and on about what it meant to her and how thankful she was to have had that experience at that moment.
Her gratitude was heart felt. She asked for my contact information, which I gave graciously, though with little thought of a continued relationship. It wasn’t long after my return home from vacation that I got a thank you card from Alice telling me how much that gesture at that little church in the mountains of Maine had meant to her.
Alice filled me in on her new job that would involve a move and inquired about the goings on in my life. Over the next 10 years, through my marriage and birth of my three children, Alice wrote faithfully as she traversed the country. Though never more than a written check in, I was touched and elated with each communication and discovered the magnitude of what a small gesture could generate.
I have shared this story from time to time with others who question if their smile or other small kindness made a difference. For myself, Alice’s expression of love for me was a far greater gift than I could have ever imagined and lifted me many times through my struggles of self-doubt about belonging in other friend groups. We did lose touch with each other many years ago. One or both of us missed a move or a response. Her gift remains with me, as I am more willing to share with others the impact their kindness has on me and continue to use small gestures of love to make a difference for others.
– Laura Hulen, New Hampshire