While crossing the parking lot to enter my local polling place today, I saw a man talking on his cell phone. He looked visibly distraught; his hand was cupped over his eyes as he stood. As I got closer, he cried out in anguish and dropped to one knee, all the while holding the phone to his ear.
I paused as I opened the door, watching him. He was obviously deeply pained by something—it seemed he was getting terrible news of some kind. My heart went out to him, but I wasn’t sure what to do. Do I talk to him, or would that be viewed as an intrusion in a moment of private grief? Then again, his grief didn’t appear to be all that private at the moment. It was severe enough to be arresting; he couldn’t even make it to his car.
Not sure what action to take (if any), I went inside. This public mourner had caught the attention of the poll workers inside.
“Is he okay?” one of them asked me as I handed over my voter registration card.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “It sure seems like he’s getting some bad news.”
A couple people continued to watch through the window, as did I. He still hadn’t moved on. There, on the sidewalk outside the polling place, he continued to kneel, hand over his eyes and head bowed.
I’m going to do something, I thought. So I voted as hastily as I could, accepted an “I Voted” sticker on my way out the door, and walked up to the man.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said as I put my hand on his arm. “I know you’re on the phone, and I don’t mean to interrupt, but is there anything I can do for you?”
He looked at me with bleary, reddened eyes.
“There’s been a death—” He was so choked with grief that he couldn’t even finish the sentence.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Rhett, can I pray for you?”
He nodded his head.
“Can I ask who died?” I said.
At this, he simply burst into tears. And there, in the parking lot at the polling place, I prayed with all the fervency and empathy I could muster. I asked the God of all comfort, the same God who knows what it is to suffer loss and even death, to draw near to Rhett and his family. I prayed that, despite their grief, they would know the surpassing peace that only God can grant us in times of personal pain. I ended by speaking blessing over him, and by giving him a hug. He thanked me, and—after taking a moment to compose himself—went inside to vote.
I drove away from the polling place in tears, saddened the loss that Rhett was feeling. I continued to pray for him as I drove, and then it hit me: Does he have a church family? Is he part of a community that will close ranks around him and bear his burdens during this time? Rob, for goodness’ sake, you’re a pastor! Go offer further ministry to him, and invite him into your own faith-community!
I turned the car around, but by the time I got back to the polling place, he was gone.
As I shared this encounter with my wife, I did some weeping of my own. While it was a joy and a privilege to be able to offer the simple comfort of a caring voice, a heartfelt prayer, and a hug, I could have done so much more. I was just a little too slow on the uptake.
Next time, I pray that I have the presence of mind and spirit to do a more appropriate level of follow-through in a situation like that. In the meantime, friends, I invite you to pray for Rhett and his family.
aka The MonT-SteR