It was a wonderful weekend with my family and I didn’t want to leave. But my new job in Pocatello — a couple of hours away from my home in Logan — came quickly and it would be another month before I could move my family to the Gate City. I waved goodbye as my wife drove away from the bus station, my four young daughters blowing kisses through the rear window of our family car.
I looked away and saw the bus pull into the parking lot. The doors popped open and a group of weary-looking travelers stumbled off the bus, lighting cigarettes and stretching their legs. At that point, I didn't realize one of them would end up teaching me an important lesson.
A man around the age of 30 caught my eye. Puffing furiously on an already-smoked cigarette, he looked as if he had been on the road for a week or more. He was wearing torn blue jeans and a tattered, soiled Army jacket. One sandal was held together with duct tape. His hair was matted and had the texture of straw.
I grabbed my bag and boarded the bus. I did not want to sit next to this man and scanned the coach looking for a seat with no belongings near it. I found one, just a few rows behind the driver. I tossed my bag into the overhead bin and sat next to the window. I closed my eyes and reclined the seat.
It wasn’t long before the half-dozen or so passengers reboarded the bus. I felt the coach sway as they worked their way toward the back until getting settled in. But just as I began to relax again, my seat shook and an unpleasant smell surrounded me. I looked to my right and came nose-to-nose with my seatmate, the man in the Army jacket.
The bus lurched forward and the interior lights flickered off. Rather than acknowledge my fellow traveler, I let the darkness add to the silence and again closed my eyes.
But after a few minutes my seatmate began to fight with a duffel bag he had stuffed under his seat. After finally maneuvering the bag onto his lap, he began to rummage through it, seemingly looking for something important.
The contents were a microcosm of his unkempt world. Pushing an old yellowed T-shirt out of the way, he dug deep into the bag. He shoved past the unmated socks and empty cigarette packs before finally grabbing what he sought.
From among the unwashed laundry and empty plastic-foam cups and ripped-up comic books he found his prize: a brand-new, never-read Book of Mormon.
He threw his backpack on the floor and leaned back in the seat. He opened it to the first page and started to read. After a few moments, he held the book up to my face and asked, “You ever hear about this Nephi fellow? What’s his story?”
Startled, I started to explain the story of Nephi and then abruptly stopped to ask, “I’m sorry, but where did you get that book?” He raised his eyebrows and looked out the window for a moment. He then nodded his head as if to say, “OK, I’ll tell you my story.”
His mother had died in Seattle a few months earlier, after which he went to live with his sister in Thibodaux, La. But the relationship quickly soured and he came home one day to find his duffel bag on the porch and the door locked.
Heading back to Seattle, he had spent two weeks mostly walking and occasionally hitchhiking when he reached Salt Lake City. He was walking in the rain along I-15 in South Salt Lake when a state police officer pulled up behind him.
“I didn’t want to get arrested again, so I hopped the rail and slid down the grass and ran,” he said.
He walked for a couple of miles and came across a church. It was a Sunday and the parking lot was full and he decided to go in and ask God for help.
“I walked in and sat down in the back row, quiet as a mouse,” he said. “I began to ask God for assistance. I was hungry and hadn’t eaten in a couple of days and I was so, so tired.”
He looked up and found two well-dressed men standing near him. They motioned for him to come with them.
“I thought, ‘Hey, this must be the answer to my prayers,’” he told me.
He explained his situation to the men and watched their eyes for his answer. “A person’s eyes always tell what they are going to say before they say it,” he said. And he knew immediately that it wasn’t good news.
“Look, you just can’t walk into church dressed like that,” said the man. “I understand you’ve had some trouble. We all have. But services have started and we can’t disturb people.” The man reached into his pocket and gave the traveler $10 and motioned toward the door.
“Good luck” was all he said.
My seatmate continued walking north and soon came to another church. This time, he thought, he was going to talk to God. “I walked in and sat right down in the back, just like last time,” he told me.
Pretty quickly, the man at the front of the chapel whispered something to the man next to him and bounded down the steps and walked straight for him. “Oh no, not again,” he thought.
No. Not again.
The man shook his hand and led him through the door in the back. Just as the traveler tried to once again tell his story, a second door had opened and he was invited inside. The sign on the door said “bishop’s office.”
After my seatmate told the bishop about his past couple of weeks, the bishop thought for a moment and invited his guest to kneel with him in prayer. He was happy to do so.
After they were finished, the bishop, a tall good-looking man of about 40, grabbed his coat and said, “Let’s go.” Soon they were driving toward the center of town. There was silence in the car except for the church music coming from the radio.
“It felt kind of weird,” he told me with a chuckle. “He never even told me where we were going.”
They ended up at the bus station. The bishop walked to the ticket window and quickly returned. “Here is a bus ticket to Seattle,” he began. “And here is $30 for food and incidentals. I want you to know that I’m not doing this; God is. This money came from every person you saw sitting in the chapel today. They gave it so I can help you.”
The traveler rubbed the bus ticket with his fingers in disbelief. “Well, thank you so much,” he began. “I’ll never forget you. How can I ever repay you?”
The bishop reached into his coat pocket and pulled out that brand-new Book of Mormon. “You can read this on the bus: that’s how you can thank me,” he told him. “I want you to know the kind of people who love you this much.”
And with that, he just walked away.
“And I’m gonna read it,” he said. “I promised him.”
The bus suddenly came to a stop and I saw the night sky of Pocatello. The 90-minute trip seemed almost never to have happened.
My mind was spinning as I started to get out of my seat, thinking, "This is how things are supposed to happen. This is what we as church members are supposed to do." My heart was full and there were tears in my eyes. I said my goodbyes and started to the front of the bus, but I quickly turned back.
I pushed past the people in the aisle. I had to ask him the name of that other church, the one who scoffed at his appearance, the one who thought a couple of dollars would somehow ease this man’s suffering while at the same time buying themselves a little of God's love.
“Oh, I remember their name,” he said. “It was on a big brick sign out front. They were The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I don’t like them. They aren’t like these Mormons,” he said, waving the Book of Mormon in the air.
“I love Mormons. Always will.”
I sat in my car for a half hour trying to wrap my head around what I just heard. Just a mile apart and in the shadow of the great Salt Lake Temple were two LDS church buildings, two wards probably separated by a single street in their community. One turned him away, caring only that he didn’t soil the carpets or clash with the faithful, while the other welcomed him, counseled him and prayed with him.
And to give the man some much-needed self-respect, he was allowed to earn what he had been given by reading a book.
It’s been 20 years since that bus trip, and I think about that man almost daily. I doubt he read the book all the way through, but I know he tried. He likely continued to live on society’s fringe, doing his best but not being quite "good enough."
But this story's happy ending doesn't come from any change he might have made; it comes from how he changed me. Never again was the goodness of another human being veiled by his appearance or demeanor. He reminded me that there but for the grace of God go I.
And that was enough of a miracle for one day.
Farid Rushdi is a graduate of Idaho State University and is a writer and photographer for the Idaho State Journal in Pocatello. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org