A Man from Texas
Fr. Basil Zebrun
Every now and then we meet a person who makes a strong first impression, in either a positive or negative way. On a recent deanery trip, I had such an experience when I met Thomas from a small town in Texas. Thomas was the manager of a motel: The Timber Lodge. On repeated occasions I had the opportunity to watch him enthusiastically answer the motel phone and greet people making their way into the lobby.
Thomas apparently managed alone, so whenever the phone rang he would quickly rush to the counter and answer: "Good morning, this is Thomas of the Terrific Timber Lodge. How may I help you?" As potential guests stepped out of their vehicles he would meet them at the door, shake their hands and ask what he could do to assist them. In addition, he faithfully informed guests that the breakfast area and snacks were available free of charge, fourteen hours a day, from 8 am to 10 pm. And if visitors were in doubt as to local "must see" sites, Thomas was all too happy to point them in the right direction. He proved to be a storehouse of information.
Many people in the retail, entertainment and hotel/motel industries display a degree of friendliness; they are, we would say, "good salespeople." The best are those -- like Thomas -- whose enthusiasm and helpfulness are extensions of their natural character: "it's just who they are." They believe in their product and are genuinely sensitive to the needs of others.
My impressions of Thomas, however, were shaped by more than his zeal as manager of an inn. He obviously possessed a fair amount of religious knowledge and was never shy while referring to his practice of the Christian faith.
As examples, when we walked into the lobby and he saw our cassocks Thomas asked if we were Roman Catholic or Orthodox priests. He apparently knew about the Orthodox Church, and was definitely familiar with the local Orthodox community and some of its members. When asked about his own Church, he identified himself simply as, "Christian," not mentioning a particular denomination.
In addition, his normal routine required him to be at the motel by 7:30 am. But during our conversations he stated that many mornings he would awake at 4:30 or 5:00 am. Prior to leaving the house he naturally would shower, get dressed and eat. He also had what Orthodox Christians call, "a personal rule of prayer." If time allowed Thomas would read brief passages from the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, and sing "songs of praise," before departing for the office.
Thomas's enthusiasm for work, and practice of his faith, were impressive. As one might expect, while watching him manage the lobby my thoughts turned to our own efforts as Orthodox Christians to greet visitors and to be sensitive to their needs when they come through the doors of the Church.
Whenever we meet someone like Thomas who makes a strong first impression it can be a revelation. For instance, sensing something admirable in Thomas, worthy of emulation, one adult guest said to him lightheartedly during breakfast, "Thomas, when I grow up I want to be like you." That is quite a statement -- even when said in jest -- coming from someone who only met Thomas the previous night. On a more serious note, the history of the Church contains examples of those whose lives were changed radically by first impressions, by the sight of Christians observed for the first time, suffering valiantly for the faith, offering forgiveness to their persecutors. More consistent, though, with our own experiences, are people we know who returned to the Orthodox Church a second time and eventually converted, partially as a result of first impressions: i.e. warm, sincere Church members displaying interest in their initial visit.
My point in all of this, is to encourage us to reflect upon Thomas's dedication to both his job and faith, in terms of Church life generally. Thomas was certainly in no danger of suffering or dying immediately for Christ. In fact, one could say that he had a pleasant career and was merely practicing Christian "bare essentials" within that context: prayer, hospitality and respect for others. Perhaps being impressed by the bare essentials is a bit revelatory in and of itself.
Be that as it may, imagine what life in the Church would be like generally if, like Thomas, Orthodox Christians practiced their own rule of prayer more faithfully; if we displayed more respect for others; if we concerned ourselves strongly with the immediate needs of guests, welcoming newcomers with the same enthusiasm as this man from Texas. He performed admirably -- even inspirationally -- within the context of a business: the "Terrific Timber Lodge." We have something, however, infinitely more precious than a motel: we have the Church, whose life is that of Christ Himself. Through the life of the Church we have been united to Christ. Through Him we have become children of God, citizens of the Kingdom here and now. Part of our responsibility -- the bare essentials -- is indeed to welcome others into this Reality, this Body, which interestingly has been likened to the inn -- motel -- in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
One can pray that our recognition of these precious gifts and our enthusiastic response, will perhaps lead others to say, even just in passing, "When I grow up I want to be like you Orthodox Christians." As for me, whether or not I am ever able to emulate the admirable qualities of Thomas, I certainly would like to stay at his motel again, if travels permit. A large welcome and great service will most assuredly be waiting.