Just the Other Day: A Penny Saved…

To coin an old phrase from Benjamin Franklin, (pun intended) “A penny saved is a penny earned.” I agree, Ben. This is especially true for me when it comes to buying gasoline, because I travel so much.


I was on my way to New Hampshire. By the time I reached southern Michigan, unleaded was $2.97 on the interstate. Last week I was on the same road, I-75, but on the other end, in Florida. Gas was less expensive down south. I filled the tank grumbling, “Why can’t this gas be cheaper, like last week? Afterall, it is the same road.”


Near Detroit, I get off the interstates to take state routes eastbound to avoid toll roads. Another penny saved, plus I see some really cool things when I get off the main roads.


On US-20 in Perrysburg, Ohio, I passed a Kroger Fuel Stop. “Holy smokes! $2.17 a gallon? You gotta be kidding me.” I reasoned, “You probably have to be a member to get that price.” I drove by, but curiosity got the best of me and I turned around to go back. That price was for everyone. It didn’t take much, but I topped off the tank and wrote a note to myself. “We’ll stop here for gas on the way home, too.” I told my dog, June.


Saturday afternoon, I finished my business in Derry, New Hampshire, and started for home.


Sunday morning, I stopped 185 miles from Perrysburg. I calculated exactly how much fuel I would need to get to Kroger, then added a couple extra gallons to be safe. I wanted a nearly empty tank when I got there, in order to get as much of that bargain gasoline as possible. I also checked the schedules at area churches.


There was a mass in couple of hours, but I didn’t want to hang around that long. I would be in Perrysburg at 10:30 and found a church there with an 11:00 mass. “Perfect.” I was pretty smug when I gave June a rub on the head, “Things are all going my way today.” I added St. John XXIII, to the route on my GPS. My fuel calculator said I had 220 miles to empty. “Darn it, I bought way too much gas.” I complained as I pulled away.


The GPS was taking me down several back roads to Perrysburg, but that didn’t surprise me since I added a destination. I didn’t mind, as long as I got to church on time and I was rather enjoying some new scenery.


The head winds were strong. I noticed my miles to empty number was dropping faster than the miles to my destination. I was seventy miles out with only 85 miles to empty. I cursed the GPS. “Stupid piece of junk! Why do you do this to me? Why can’t you just stay on the main road?” I was worried about having enough gas to get there and slowed down five miles-per-hour, hoping for better fuel economy.


On the narrow shoulder ahead, I could see someone walking. The thermometer showed eight degrees; a bit cold to be out on a casual walk. I moved to the left lane and slowed down a bit.


I caught a glimpse of the man as I passed him. He was wearing a long tan, hooded coat, insulated pants and boots. He had a big red scarf around his neck and sported a backpack. He looked like he was freezing. I wondered where he could be going. There were no houses in sight. I suppose I was a quarter mile past him when I hit the brakes and pulled over and started backing down the shoulder.


I rolled the passenger window down. “Are you doing okay?” He said he was. I inquired, “Do you have far to go?” His cheeks were pretty red.


“I’m going to Portland.” He caught me off guard with his answer. I asked if he meant Portland, Oregon. “Yeah.”


“Dude, that’s well over two thousand miles away.” I said. He looked bewildered. “Are you cold?” He said he was a little cold. “If you’d like a ride, I can get you up to the next town.”


He was appreciative, “Are you sure? I don’t want to be intrusive or cause you any inconvenience.”


“You’re not, I would be happy to have you ride along.” He climbed into the van and sat in the passenger seat. June went nuts sniffing him. He still had his pack on his back which caused him to sit way forward on the seat. I introduced June and myself; he told me his name was Jeremy.


“Jeremy, it’s seventy miles to town. If you take your pack off you could sit back and be a lot more comfortable.” He set it on the floor between his legs then held his hands in front of the vents to warm them.


As we talked, he told me his story: His mom and dad had both passed away within the last two years. “I really miss my dad. We went fishing a lot. He understood me.” Jeremy was trying to get to Billings Montana, “I was told the Salvation Army there will give me a free train ticket to Portland.” His brother still lives in Portland, where they grew up. He told me he has a hard time accepting that anyone could love him. “Why would anyone want to love me? I’m nobody.”  The more I listened to his story, the more I wanted to help him.


I try to go to church every Sunday but thought, “God won’t mind if I skip today to help this guy.” I asked Jeremy if he was a Christian, he said he believed in God. I told him, “I’m going to stop in this town ahead to go to church. If you want to find something to do for an hour, afterwards I could take you as far as Minneapolis.” He seemed very interested, “Or, if you want, I could take you to Duluth. They have a shelter called CHUM, where you could stay for a few days. I’m going to California next week and I drive right through Billings. I can take you all the way there.” I could tell his was thinking about it.


As we got closer to Perrysburg, I said, “I don’t want you to feel any pressure, I’m just making an offer; if you’d like to go to church with me, you’re welcome to come along.” He asked if that would be okay with the people at my church, or if he would be out of place. I laughed, “It’s not my church, it’s God’s church and you would be very welcome.” He said he wanted to think about it. We drove on and kept talking.


My miles to empty were still dropping faster than the miles to my destination, but I was no longer worried about it. If God led you to it, he’ll get you through it. I knew I wasn’t going to run out of gas.


Not far from the church there was a place where Jeremy could wait for me. He would be inside and out of the cold. I asked if he wanted me to drop him off there. “I’d kind of like to go to church with you, if you’re sure no one will mind. I don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable.” I assured him he would be just fine.


As we walked toward the building, I said something about being Catholic. Jeremy stopped in his tracks. “This is a Catholic church?” I told him it was. “I’ve never been to a Catholic church,” he said, “I don’t know about this. Do they allow strangers?”


I’ve had people tell me they don’t think Catholic churches are very welcoming to strangers. I don’t agree but I can see where people who don’t understand all the standing, sitting and kneeling, can find it intimidating. I reassured him, “Jeremy, we’re in Ohio. I’m from Minnesota. I’m a stranger here, too.” I told him again, “I don’t want you to feel pressured. You can wait out here, or come inside the lobby where it’s warm and wait for me there.”


He thought for a moment. “Are you sure I won’t be intruding?”


I chuckled, “No more than I am.” I explained, “About all this standing and sitting stuff, you can follow my lead, or you can remain seated. No one is going to care. If you’re not comfortable, let me know and I’ll walkout with you.”


When we walked in a greeter in the lobby welcomed us. A girl at the doors leading into the chapel offered us a weekly bulletin; I took one, Jeremy shook his head to decline. The girl gave him a warm smile. Inside an usher approached us holding up two fingers. I nodded.  There were plenty of places he could have seated us in the back of the church, but he led us about two-thirds of the way to the front of the church. The opening song was already playing. The band was amazing! We just barely made it on time.


Jeremy opted to stay seated with his hood up over his army green stocking cap. What I first thought was a red scarf, was a fleece blanket, still wrapped around his neck. His coat was zipped almost all the way up and he kept his head down.


When sending the little kids off, Father Herb asked how many had ever put their foot in a river. Several kids raised their hands. “While you’re at the children’s homily I’m going to tell the adults about a river. On your way home today, be sure to ask your parents about the river.” Wow, what a great way to get people to pay attention to the homily. Apparently, there’s going to be a test afterwards!


The gospel reading was about the baptism of Christ. Father quoted Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, who said, no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. The banks, the rocks and the trees might be the same, but as the water flows, the river is forever changing and the man changes too. It made perfect sense to me.


Father talked about the Sea of Galilea and the Dead Sea being connected by the Jordan River. The Sea of Galilea takes water in and passes it on through the river. The Dead Sea takes in water, but does not pass it along – thus the name.  The gift of faith is meant to be shared, lest it should go the way of the waters in the Dead Sea. His message was really hitting home for me.


I was so caught up in the sermon I almost forgot I had a guest with me. He still kept his head down. I thought he might have been sleeping. At one point an usher came and whispered, “Is he okay? Does he need any medical attention, water or anything?” I thought it was very nice of him to ask. Jeremy was fine and occasionally looked up.


As the mass went on, he became a little more comfortable and would stand and sit whenever I did. When it came time, the congregation stood for the Lord’s Prayer. Holding hands for this prayer is optional. A lady, I suppose in her twenties, was sitting alone on the other side of Jeremy. She reached out and took his left hand while I took his right. The man on the other side of the aisle, crossed over and took my right hand. We all said the prayer together. I looked at Jeremy; there was a bit of a sparkle in his eye.


I’m not sure if the lady to his left had any idea what an impact she made on him. The idea that a total stranger would take his hand and pray with him, I believe, really made his day.


I spoke softly explaining to Jeremy, the practice of offering peace. “People may want to shake your hand and say, ‘Peace be with you.’ You can accept their handshake, or not. It’s up to you.” When the time came, I shook his hand, as did the lady next to him. The people in the pew behind us and in front of us also shook his hand, wishing him peace. I think I actually saw him smiling.


After mass, people gathered in the vestibule for coffee, donuts and conversation. I asked Jeremy if he wanted to get a donut and a cup of coffee. He respectfully declined, “I don’t want to take their food away from them.” I assured him they had plenty for all, but he still declined.


While I went to get a cup of coffee a person approached Jeremy. They talked for a few moments. Then another man stopped to talk with him, and another. People were stopping me to talk as well. By the time I got back to Jeremy, he was well into conversation with yet another lady and a man was standing to the side, waiting his turn to greet him. It was as if I had taken a kitten to show and tell, everyone wanted to meet him. My heart felt so full and warm.  People not only welcomed Jeremy, but included him.


Before we left another man, I think his name was Paul,  approached Jeremy. The man dug into his pocket and handed him a small metal cross. I thought that was very cool.


Afterwards, we went to IHOP and had pancakes for breakfast. Jeremy wanted to pay for the meal but I insisted, “This treat is on me.” He asked me how far it was to Toledo, Ohio. “I’m not sure,” I answered, “But it can’t be very far. I think Perrysburg is in the Toledo metro. Why do you ask?”


“My brother said if I could get to the train station in Toledo, he would buy an Amtrak ticket to Portland for me.” He went on to say, “I just hate for him to have to spend his money on me. It makes me feel like I’m taking something away from his family.”


I smiled, “Jeremy, if your brother is offering you a ticket, he doesn’t have to do this for you, he wants to. You should accept his offer.” He said he would, and I programmed the Amtrak station into my GPS.


I stopped at McDonald’s. “I’m going to grab a cup of coffee for the road.” I said.


He said, “Let me buy it for you. You’ve done so much for me.” I told him he didn’t have to do that. He replied, almost mimicking me, “I know I don’t have to. I want to.” I graciously accepted his offer.


I dropped Jeremy off at the train station. We said our farewells and I headed for the Kroger Fuel Stop. My miles to empty had been on zero for a while which was okay: now I could get a full tank of gasoline at just $2.17 per gallon.


Driving to Kroger, I related to Father Herb’s homily. Last week I was on I-75 in Florida. This week I was on the same highway in Michigan, and would be on I-75 in Ohio shortly. It’s all the same highway – but if a man never steps in the same river twice, would the same not be true of a highway where people are constantly flowing in traffic just as the water in the river?


I thought about my GPS and how it seemed to be senselessly taking me on a joy ride down back roads when I had neither the time nor the fuel to be doing so. But what if it hadn’t? I never would have met Jeremy, or found out just how truly beautiful the people are at St. John XXIII. With every new day, I’m reminded there is a reason for everything. I need to relax and see where life is going to take me next.


I turned into the Kroger fuel stop and filled the van. There wasn’t much gas left in the tank but there was plenty to get me where God wanted me to be. As I hung the nozzle back on the fuel pump, I noticed the fuel was only $1.16 per gallon. I compared the price to my receipt from the other day. “Hmm. The gas is one cent cheaper than it was two days ago.” I grinned, “A Penny Saved…”