Care Capsule

Edification or Demolition?

— Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Two gas stations attendants. One I met at a self-service pump; the other at her desk. The first in rain on a chilly night. The second in the afternoon, but there was no sun in that building.

What caused their differing attitudes, I won’t pretend to know. There may be a host of reasons why the latter attendant was so bitter, and much sympathy spilled on her. But that isn’t the point right now. Edification is the point, a Latin way of saying “building up.” The power to build up other human beings, or else to tear them down, no matter how menial the circumstance or how quick the meeting—that is the power possessed by each member of the body of Christ, and a mighty power indeed.

I had my collar up against the rain. I hunched at the rear of the Nova, had screwed the gas cap off and was running gas into the tank. My hand was numb. Beside me, suddenly, stood the attendant, his hands in his pockets. His presence was not rushing me because it was at peace. He said, “hello,” and a smile flicked across his face. Nor was he some chill stranger, though I did not know him. When he spoke he looked directly into my eyes—without fear, without embarrassment, with neither judgment nor haughtiness nor threat. I, whoever I happened to be; I, whatever my family or my profession; I was there for him in that moment.

He was lean. Dark hair streaked his forehead with the rain. He shook his head slowly when he saw the brown face of my kid looking out the window, and raindrops flew off his chin. I think he laughed. The fill-up seemed to take a long time. I hit $20 on the penny, capped the pipe, handed him the bills and watched while he folded them into his roll. He did not solve some terrible trouble of mine. Nor did he save me from disaster or fix something I couldn’t fix. Nevertheless, this attendant did the extraordinary.

He shook my hand. He smiled one more time, and to me he said, “Thank you.” I admit it: This is a minor and nearly forgettable incident. And it should be unworthy of a column. Except that when I slid back into the Nova, I stopped a moment before turning the key and Thanne said, “Why are you smiling?” Drip, drip and a slowly spreading smile.
The fellow had built me up. He had edified me.

I never saw him again.

Neither did I ever see the other attendant again. But I remember her too. She kept her separated seat while I filled my thirsty car. No matter to that. Most attendants don’t pop out of the station for every person that jerks the handle. But when I entered the building, still she kept the seat, her eyes downward, gazing at the top of her desk. No book to read. Just staring.

I held out my money. “Whadda-ya want me to do with that?" she said. “Well, to take it,” I said. “I’m
paying for the gas.” “So how much was it?” “Twenty.”

There were lines from her nose to the corners of her mouth. Sullen lines. Anger, for some reason or other. And I was, it seemed, an intrusion in her life. She snapped the bills from my hand and bedded them in the slots of her register. She was chewing gum. It cracked like biddy-whips. She was whorling her hair with a forefinger.

I stood there too long, I think. She said, still without looking at me, “Your car stuck? You waiting for something?” “No.” I slid disquieted into the car and sat awhile. Demolition.
Sadness had made me sad. The day had been torn down utterly.

You say: “But how can I serve the Lord? I’m not important. What I do is so common and of little consequence. Anyone can do what I do.” But I say to you: “Every time you meet another human being you have the opportunity. It’s a chance at holiness. For you will do one of two things. Either you will build him up, or you will tear him down. Either you will acknowledge that she is, or you will make her sorry that she is —sorry, at least, that she is there, with you. You will create, or you will destroy. And the things you dignify or deny are God’s. They are made, each one of them, in God’s own image.”

And I say to you: “There are no useless, minor meetings. There are no dead-end jobs. There are no pointless lives. Swallow your sorrows; forget your grievances and all the hurt your poor life has sustained. Turn your face truly to the human before you and let her, for one pure moment, shine. Think her important, and then she will suspect that she is fashioned of God.”

How do you say “Hello”? Or do you? How do you greet strangers? Are you so proud as to burden your customer, your client, your neighbor, your child, with your tribulations? Even by attitude? Even by crabbiness or gloom? Demolition!

Or do you look them in the eye and grant them peace? Such are the members of the body of Christ—and edification in a service station.

Reprinted by permission from Ragman and Other Cries of Faith, published by HarperSanFrancisco. Walter Wangerin is a faculty member at Valparaiso University in Indiana, an Evangelical Lutheran Church pastor and author.

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