Reverend Deborah Johnson answers the question:
What is the nicest thing a non-family member has ever done for you?
I can honestly say that I have been blessed through my life with people who have done many, many, many nice things for me. The thing that really stands out for me the most isn't the largest thing. It's not the most extravagant thing, but I do believe in all my life it's probably one of the things that has touched me the most, and it was actually from a stranger.
This happened many years ago. I was a first-year student at UCLA in the graduate school of management, now named the Anderson School of Business. And I didn't know the system at the time. I didn't know that you had to get your parking permit so much earlier, and I didn't have a parking permit. And that area in Los Angeles, you can't park on the street. You're right next to Bel Air and Beverly Hills and all these very expensive neighborhoods.
This particular day I had a test. I recall it was my first test in the Graduate School of Business. I was working on my MBA. I was going to school full time. I was working full time. I was in a relationship and co-parenting a deaf child. I was stretched really thin, and I literally had five dollars. That's what I had. This was before we had ATMs. This was back in 1980. You didn't have debit cards. I had five dollars, and I had to make a decision. Was I going to eat, or was I going to pay five dollars and get a spot in that parking lot? I decided I'd rather go hungry. I didn't want to miss this exam.
So back then things aren't automated, and there's a guy who's at the kiosk. Never seen him before, because I had done this $5 parking thing a number of times now since I didn't have a permit. Never seen him before. Never saw him since. Older gentleman, African-American, slow. Really, really slow.
He reminded me a lot of my older relatives, and he just kept taking his time. And I couldn't figure why was he taking so long. Chop, chop, chop, chop, I gotta go. And he's sort of sizing me up, and he's looking around at the car, and he's talking to me, and he's making all this chitchat. And he says, "You go to school here?" “Yes, sir, in fact, I do. I've got an exam coming up right now. He's like, "Mm-hmm, mm-hmm." Slow like only an old black guy can honestly be slow. And my patience is kind of wearing, and I'm trying to be nice. And he starts to stick the sticker inside my inside windshield, and I go to give him the five dollars. And he just pushes my hand away, and he says, "This one's on Daddy." And I looked at him and he looked me dead in the eye, and he said, "Get yourself some lunch." It was so piercing. And I said, "Well, thank you."
And these words turned my life around. He just looked at me and said, "You do good in there ‘cause I believe in you." And I was so deeply moved. There was something about the words from this stranger: "I believe in you." And I remember being so humbled, thinking, this man who's here working at this kiosk probably never had a chance to have any education. You know, here I'm working on my master's degree, and he's gifted me with five dollars. That's probably one of the smallest gifts I've ever been gifted with, but empowering me in that moment to have lunch so I could do well on that exam where he believed in me. I tell you, it touched me to my core.
I've never seen him again, and it makes me wonder. This was the second time in my life when I can remember having this sensation. Did he even really exist? There are these moments when it feels like there are angels among us, and they just appear. And what he did for me is he really helped show me that it isn't the size of the gift, it isn't how big or grandiose or how intimate or how familiar, but just the kindest gesture towards someone and particularly the affirmation of their belief in you or their encouragement to you to just go for it and to do it... how incredibly important that is. I don't know his name. I've only seen him once, but I really try to continue that legacy of wherever I can, empowering somebody with whatever little bit that I have and letting them know that I believe in them.
Rev. Deborah L. Johnson is the founding minister and president of Inner Light Ministries, an Omnifaith outreach ministry dedicated to teaching the practical application of Universal Spiritual Principles to all of life’s circumstances. She is also the founder and president of The Motivational Institute, an organizational development consulting firm specializing in cultural diversity serving the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Her clients range from Fortune 500 companies to community-based organizations. She is a dynamic public speaker, known for her ability to bring clarity to complex and emotionally charged issues. Click here to visit her website.
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This article appears in: 2019 Catalyst, Issue 15: Thriving in Your Third Act Summit