Standing in line at Starbucks was an old friend. Well, a sort of friend. He didn't remember me, which I expected and anticipated. I had met Tommy at the local homeless shelter while serving lunch. He came through the line with a tray in his hands and a smile on his face. In the winter months he donned a furry eared trappers hat. During summer he sported his Erie SeaWolves hat and jersey, always a proud baseball fan despite the teams losing record.
Tommy has brain damage. Although he is in his fifties, he looks much younger, thinks on a childlike level and speaks with an impediment that causes conversational challenges for those on the listening end of the dialogue. Despite his physical and mental limitations Tommy is always smiling. Always. He exudes joy from every line in his face and ever crinkle around his bright eyes. It's no wonder that I couldn't forget Tommy.
When I spotted him in Starbucks I had to say hello. I jogged his memory by reminding him of where we had met before and my Mom's name, someone who he chatted with faithfully every time he saw her. She was, and I assume still is, gifted at understanding Tommy's muddled speech. Upon hearing her name he lit up. "I know Cindy!"
From there Tommy was on a roll telling me about that day's agenda. He pulled out a receipt from his pocket showing me that he had just received a hair-cut from the SportsClips next-door. He took off his hat to show off the military style cut. He told me about where he lives now and why he doesn't come into the shelter for meals anymore. "They fight too much there." And he's right, they do.
I couldn't make out every detail of what Tommy was trying to tell me. He did his best to help me by repeating himself when he could tell I wasn't catching on but even that didn't always prove effective. I wanted so badly to catch every word and be able to respond with more substantive feedback but the lines of communication were too fuzzy.
As I watched Tommy strain to make his words clearer a realization suddenly dawned on me. I didn't need to know what Tommy was saying or have the perfect response. I just needed to return the smile and return the joy.
By simply looking into Tommy's kind eyes and feeling the warmth of his smile I knew we were speaking in our hearts the same language - the language of Christ's love.
When Tommy walked out the door I don't know where he was going. He tried to explain but I couldn't make out his words. But by then it didn't matter. What mattered was reciprocating love to my brother in Christ. The most important part of our conversation was the spirit behind the smile.
Isn't that really the most important part of any dialogue? Sharing a smile and the joy of the Savior always makes for a blessed conversation.