Better Than New

August 04, 2014

A recent encounter with a stranger on the street continues to stick in my thoughts. As a bit of an introvert, I generally am not one to start conversations with random strangers. I am even less likely to to do this when traveling overseas. Yet, there I stood on a sidewalk in Izmir, Turkey last month talking with a Turkish man I did not know. To be fair, though, he started it. Unlike the other sidewalk merchants - usually selling food - this man managed to capture my attention.

"Where are you from," he asked as I walked by. "Where are you from?"

In the back of my mind I remembered passing this same man with his sidewalk shoeshine kit a few days earlier with someone else. After my colleague said "The United States," the man clasped his hands together and shouted out, "It's a miracle! God bless you!" We chuckled and kept on walking. I wondered at the time why he had said "God."

This second time, however, I stopped. Stopping to talk with merchants is not like me. I have perfected the art of staring blankly ahead as I ignore attempts for conversation. But this time I stopped. I am not sure why, but perhaps I thought I would quickly satisfy his curiosity and move on. 

"The United States," I replied.

The man's face lit up as he shouted "hallelujah!"

Saying he had been in Virginia before, he asked where I lived. I told him Missouri, but added that I lived in Virginia the last several years. As his curiosity extended to the purpose of my visit, he got even more excited - which I didn't realize he could get after his initial attitude - when he learned I was there for the Baptist World Alliance meeting. He introduced himself as Tomas but added that was the new name he took when he converted to Christianity years ago. He took on the new name to represent his new life. 

He begged me to sit and talk. To leave at that point would have seemed too much like playing the part of one of the two religious leaders in Jesus's parable that is often called "the parable of the good Samaritan." 

As Tomas talked about his life and how being a Christian hurt his street shoeshine business, he gave me a couple of trinkets he sells that his wife and kids help make. He refused payment, and I did not push it as I feared insulting his generosity. He asked me to remember him and pray for him when I see them.

Before we parted, Tomas wanted to shine my shoes. I finally got him to accept some money and he got to work. 

"They will be like new," he promised. 

Turkey is known for its leather and Tomas said he knew how to restore leather much better than I would find in the United States. Perhaps I have forgotten what my shoes looked like when I first got them - I do not even remember how many years ago I bought them - but I am not sure he told me the truth about his restoration process. They did not look like new, but much better! If I would have known this would happen, I would have taken a before picture. I quickly wished I had worn my dress shoes and not my casual leather shoes (but at least I did not have tennis shoes on). 

As he worked, Tomas softly sang. He almost seemed lost in another world, still beaming that we had met. As he caressed my shoes, I felt almost like I was being welcomed with a sacred foot washing (although that would have made me feel even more uneasy on the sidewalk).

Tomas's openness and excitedness surprised me. Actually, it made me uncomfortable. Even in the U.S. I am not comfortable with many Pentecostal expressions of faith. As I had already learned, many who use the label "Protestant" in Turkey - as Tomas did - are Pentecostal. I do not generally express my faith - or any part of me - in such a manner. Yet, here I sat with a Christian in a country often said to be over 99 percent Muslim as he loudly expressed joy in Jesus and reveled in various biblical stories as if he had finally found someone who knew his inside references. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed some passerbys glancing over at him oddly (or maybe at the white guy sitting there). 

Later I wished I had asked Tomas why he chose that name when he converted. After all, he did not seem to have doubts like we often describe the biblical character. Perhaps he knew the biblical accounts well enough to know that the apostle Thomas was not always doubting. Or perhaps Tomas carried his doubts with him and I failed to see them.

I doubt I will ever be so Pentecostal in my expressions of faith; it simply is not my personality. But I am still glad I had this chance encounter with Tomas. As we talked I even started to think he was right in seeing this conversation as a divinely-planned encounter. Another surprise along the journey.

What had started as a walk to visit the ruins of ancient Smyrna, ended with flesh-and-blood proof that the story continues long after the buildings fell apart.