There was a story a few weeks back about a Starbuck’s in St. Petersburg, Florida. At 7 AM, a woman bought her cup of coffee and then offered to pay for the customer behind her. For eleven hours, customers returned the favor, accepting their free order and agreeing to pay for the person behind them. 378 customers “paid it forward.”
When I travel, I often find myself listening to the news. For the past few weeks, the news has mainly centered around the horrific acts of ISIS, the conflict in Ukraine, and the devastation in Gaza. It’s easy to get down about the state of the world – to think that human kindness does not exist. I think that’s why the Starbuck’s in Florida became a national news story. We needed something to believe in. We needed hope.
I’ve never experienced a “pay it forward” moment. I’ve been blessed by the support of countless friends, relatives, and acquaintances. Over the course of the trip, I’ve been overwhelmed by how giving the people I encounter are, how willing they are to welcome me into their homes and allow me insight into their lives. But, these people aren’t true strangers. Even though I’ve never met most of them before, our meetings are planned and our commonalities are established.
Last week, while traveling through South Carolina, I went to the opening game of the college football season between South Carolina and Texas A&M. The game ended up a blow-out, with Texas A&M crushing the hosts en route to a 52-28 victory. Near the end of the game, I struck up a conversation with the couple sitting behind me. By this point, the stadium had begun to empty as dejected Gamecock fans headed back to their cars.
The couple was in their late twenties or early thirties. The man was a pastor in Greenville, and the woman was an ER nurse. We talked about the game, about how obsessive the South is about football. We shared stories about games we’d been too. Over the course of the conversation, the couple asked me why I was traveling so far from home. I told them that I was traveling the country in search of passionate people. I talked about Williams and how important I felt that it was for students to have tangible examples of people in less-traditional fields.
When the game ended, we began to walk to the exit. I had parked three miles away at the beat-up motel I’d stayed at the night before. Columbia, SC is not the safest town, but I figured it would be easy enough to run to my car and avoid the worst of the stadium traffic. Without hesitation, the couple insisted that I let them drive me to my car. I relented. It was pretty much on their way any way I thought.
They dropped me off at my car a few minutes later, and I stopped to find my keys. While I was standing there, the pastor hopped out of the car. “Here man, it’s not much, but I want you to have this. Spend it on gas or food or whatever.” He shoved a few bills into my hand. I began to protest. After all, they’re a young couple. He refused to take it back. “I love that you’re following your passions. The world needs more of that. Good luck and let me know when your stories are ready.”
Without another word, he got in his car and pulled away.
When you travel alone, there is an inherent tradeoff between freedom and loneliness. South Carolina was one of the first stops of my trip. I had only a vague notion of where I was headed next or who I would meet along the way. This random act of kindness brought me hope. People are good. People are there to help.
Now it’s up to me to pay it forward. I’ll be sure to let you know when I do.