I first met “Guitar Leonard” two months ago during lunchtime along the side of a quiet street. I was 100 miles from home and in a hurry to get back for an afternoon meeting.
As I rounded a corner in the two-lane road, I spotted a man pulled over in a small gravel parking lot. He was standing next to his car and playing an acoustic guitar with boundless energy and a smile as big as the midday sun.
I hit the brakes, and, after performing a debatably illegal U-turn, I pulled in next to him and stepped out of my car. He eyed me with some suspicion as I approached.
Assuming he was busking like many I’ve met in places like Portland, New York or Los Angeles, I fished a few dollars from my pocket and scanned the ground for a hat or guitar case. To my surprise, I found none.
“All right, my friend,” I said, with my hand extended, “I’ve just got to know. What’s your story?”
One hour later, I had much more than a story — I had a friend.
Leonard, who asked me not to use his last name, works as a maintenance man at a large church near Washington, D.C. Everyday for lunch he finds a spot, often the same one where I first met him, and plays his guitar.
“But you don’t take tips?” I asked.
“I don’t play for money,” he said flatly. “I play for God.”
Leonard explained that more than 20 years ago, he was fighting his way through a gritty life soaked with alcohol, clouded by drugs and financial struggles. One day, a friend passed along a rumor about a paid position in a nearby church and, despite his doubts, Leonard tracked down and met with the pastor.
After a long discussion about Leonard’s skills and his ability to fix anything and everything, he was offered the job.
Shocked at the sudden opportunity, Leonard’s red, blurry eyes met the pastor’s. “Sir, I’m an alcoholic and I play my music too loud. Why would God want me working in his house?”
The pastor smiled, “Because it can be your house, too.”
It took time, but because someone believed in him, Leonard turned his life around and embraced hard work and his musical skills like never before. He became frugal with his income and invested in guitars and other equipment.
The man has never had a lesson, yet seems to know every style. Leonard played for me a half a dozen songs ranging from hymns to rock to blues. He even improvised a song about a strange man in a white shirt and tie watching him play on the side of the road. I shouted, “That could be a hit!”
In between numbers, I asked my new friend what he’d learned during his years playing for joggers, bikers and cars.
“I’ve learned that all talent comes from God. I couldn’t just do this by myself. He made it happen for me.”
We discussed the many people who’ve stopped with business cards and offers to help him take his music to a wider audience. But he says they just don’t get it. “I’m not playing to be famous. I play because it’s what I love to do.”
What else has Guitar Leonard learned?
He believes that when you have questions, you don't turn to the world for answers — you turn to heaven. “The world will lead you in every direction,” he said, letting the guitar hang from his neck as he swept his arms in a wide circle. Then he looked up and added, “But he will not.”
I wondered if he ever imagined what people were thinking when they passed him by. “My advice?” he said, “Do what you love and don't worry who's watching.”
After another song and some good-natured coaxing, Leonard allowed me to shoot a few seconds of video and to take a photo. “You know what?” I said. “I think you’re doing a lot of good in this world.”
He gestured to the sky with the neck of his guitar. “If I make a difference for God down here, he will make a difference for me up there.”
As we said goodbye, I told him I was overcome with the notion that though we may worship and work in different places, we pray to the same father in heaven and that clearly the Lord loves him dearly, is very proud of him and cannot wait to greet him above.
He looked down at his feet.
“Leonard, God loves you, do you know that?” I asked.
He smiled and looked up. "He must. He sent you here today.”
“No, no, my friend,” I insisted. “It's the other way around.”
Just last week, I ran into Guitar Leonard at the very same spot. I introduced him to a friend traveling with me that day and we laughed and danced on the side of the road.
As Leonard launched into an original song, I briefly tuned him out and tuned into my own life. In one form or another, aren’t we all playing music for our creator? Am I using my talents in the same way? Are you?
I’m not always sure what my music sounds like, but I hope one day I play as well as my friend Leonard.
Jason Wright is a New York Times best selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars" and his latest, "The 96th Annual Apple Valley Barn Dance." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, applevalleybarndance.com or jasonfwright.com