[This article first appeared in Christian Initiation 26 (October/November, 1997.]
Gert knew the needle rested below empty even before she fastened the seat belt of her Dodge. Another late night. Another frustrating meeting at the parish. And not enough gas to get home without filling up. The altar society was dying. The pastor never came to the meetings. No one new had signed up in the past four years. The youngest member was 68.
She started turning to the right from the church parking lot but checked herself. "No, not that gas station." Left turn. A little out of the way, but she felt obliged.
It wasn't just the altar society. The whole parish seemed empty. So many Catholics had moved away. She considered herself too old to move from the home she loved, and the neighborhood had changed around her. Would the parish ever see new life again?
The service station lights glared a cold greeting as she followed another car in. She'd heard on the news that an official from the company that operated her usual station had been caught on audiotape making racist remarks. Her boycott seemed a smallish gesture--she only filled up every two weeks or so. But she felt obliged.
Last Sunday didn't help either. Somebody standing up in church telling everyone they should all evangelize. "I'm a Catholic," Gert objected to herself. "Catholics don't evangelize." Gert figured the problem was not getting new members, but keeping the old ones.
Pumping her own gas at night always made Gert feel uneasy, but the couple in the other car made her more anxious. They belonged to a different race. And they were having an argument. Gert would be the first to say she was not prejudiced. But she still felt tense whenever she was in the minority. Especially at night. In a strange gas station.
They were still arguing with each other. Every sentence got louder and louder.
"I'm tellin' you the man told me it's not ready." "Well how are you supposed to get home?" "You're gonna take me." "Take your own car." "I told you, my car is not ready." "Well how did you get it here?" "We jumped it." "Jump it again." "I don't have cables."
"I do." Gert said it in spite of herself. They seemed as surprised as she that the words spilled out of her mouth. Courage had never prompted her behavior with strangers. Gert preferred to let people handle their own troubles. But now she was committed. "I have cables. You can try them," she addressed the ensuing silence.
The couple looked at each other and shrugged. Still fearful without reason, Gert opened the trunk, pulled out the cables and passed them on. "Thank you," the man said, rather sincerely.
As the couple nosed one car to the other, Gert replaced the gas hose and walked inside to pay her bill. The attendant also seemed grateful, but too professional to acknowledge her kindness to his unhappy customer. As she closed her purse, she heard outside the sputtering growl of a cold engine coming to life.
"Where did you get these cables?" the man asked approaching her, now trying polite conversation.
"Well, I don't know. My husband," she still choked at his memory, "my husband gave them to me for Christmas several years ago." The man's eyes widened in apprehension. His innocent question had peeled a layer from a larger story he seemed unprepared to hear. "I should really get some," was all he could think to say. He slunk back to his car.
Gert coiled the cables and replaced them in her trunk. The night air misted around her. She opened the door to her car, and the man suddenly appeared again, startling her.
"Sorry," he said. "Can I pay you for your trouble?"
"Oh, no." Gert could think of nothing more ridiculous. "No, it's just cables." She wanted to say she hoped he would do a kind act for another person. Then something else spilled from her mouth again. "But if you're ever looking for a church, come try ours. It's right down the street."
The man seemed puzzled. "Which church?"
"The Catholic Church. Come sometime," Gert said.
"Uh, thank you," the man courteously replied.
Gert whizzed past the warming engine of the man's troubled car as her needle gently rose.