I woke up on the last day of 2017 to the sound of cathedral bells in downtown Mobile. 

“O Little Town of Bethlehem”.

After a morning out, we stopped in the hotel bar on the way back to the room to rest before our New Year’s Eve activities scheduled for later in the afternoon.

We sat at the bar, the only two patrons within range of conversation with her – the bartender.

Her name was Dasha. 

Upon first listening to her speak, I would have guessed she was from New Orleans. But the accent was actually one that had evolved over the last 20 years. 

She was born in Russia, near the Black Sea.

Shiny, dirty blonde hair slicked back into a bun. She wore very little makeup, only a bit of mascara – her glassy blue eyes sparkling with a type of hopeful innocence.

She talked about her children – all boys. About turning down jobs to be an interpreter for the U.S. government because she didn’t want to work for people she didn’t trust. 

Which is also, she said, why she didn’t donate to charities like “Blue Cross Blue Shield”. “I won’t help the rich get richer,” she said. 

Of course, she was really talking about The American Red Cross, but I didn’t correct her. I just let her talk.

She said that she wanted to help people. Homeless people and women and children. She wanted to pay it forward, because that’s the right thing to do. 

She said she had the Holy Spirit.

When she had her first son, a Christian charity helped her. The charity used a points program. If she went to a Bible study and other similar activities, she could earn points for supplies like diapers, wipes, etc. 

She earned enough points to get a car seat.

If she was going to help a charity, she said, she would help one like that. Because they had helped her. And she knew that they wouldn’t just pocket her donation.

As I listened to her talk about the charity that helped her, I began to feel anger. 

Anger at the ignorance. The feeling that someone, in the name of my Jesus, who gives love, grace, and mercy in abundance, and freely, would only give aid if someone earned “points”.

I still don’t condone it.

But then that same Holy Spirit that Dasha has, the one that I have, began to move my judgmental heart.

“What if, Allison? What if some people don’t want a handout? What if they want to feel like they earned something? What if it was through the good intentions, and not necessarily the actual acts, of the charity that led Dasha to believe in a God that is Love? Who are you to judge what you do not know? Doesn’t God see the heart, not the man?

Shhhh….just listen.”

So I did. Dasha continued to talk about the evils of “Blue Cross”. About paying it forward, helping those in need. Teaching her children about giving, not getting, especially at Christmastime.

I missed church on Sunday. 

But only the building.

Sometimes God shows up in cathedral bells on a freezing cold Sunday morning.

Sometimes He shows up in the smile of a stranger.

Sometimes He shows up in the sparkling eyes of a Russian immigrant bartender, reminding you of the simple truths that everyone needs a little grace, and that paying it forward is always the right decision.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given;

So God imparts to human hearts

The blessings of His Heaven.

No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,

Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.