On the Road to Hominy

The Road to Emmaus, painting by Altobello Melone, circa 1516–1517. Google Art Project. © commons.wikimedia.org.

The story goes that it was on the road to Emmaus that Jesus appeared to two of his followers after his crucifixion. They didn’t recognize him as he walked with them and discussed the recent terrifying events in Jerusalem. But later, after he’d vanished from their sight, they asked, “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way?” (Luke 24:32). It was only later, in telling the 11 disciples, that they recognized the revelation and stated, “The Lord is risen indeed.”

Quakers hold to the truth that there is continuing revelation and that there is that of God in everyone, but sometimes it is only later, in the retelling, that we recognize an opening.

My husband, Les, and I were on our way to Hominy, Oklahoma, one cold, bright winter morning so that I could visit my friend Vet, who is in prison there, and Les could visit Hominy Meeting. We are unprogrammed Quakers, but we have visited the lovely old meetinghouse in Hominy for worship many times through the years. Hominy Meeting is part of Great Plains Yearly Meeting and Friends United Meeting. They have been worshiping in this little white frame church on unallotted Osage land since 1908. Their website states that they are “intentionally a predominately Native American fellowship with an Osage emphasis.”

Quakers hold to the truth that there is continuing revelation and that there is that of God in everyone, but sometimes it is only later, in the retelling, that we recognize an opening.

It was a great plan, except that—as often happens—the great plan did not work the way I had expected. I forgot and wore an underwire bra to that visit and set off the alarm system at the prison security checkpoint. Therefore, I wasn’t allowed in to visit my friend. I explained that I didn’t have a car and that my husband would not pick me up until the afternoon. The corrections officer was polite but firm: I could sit in the single chair in the screening area, she said, but I would not be allowed to visit.

A lady waiting to go through the scanner suggested that I might cross the highway and go to the casino to wait. I joked that the bag of quarters I’d brought with me for the overpriced vending machines in the visiting area wouldn’t help feed my incarcerated friend, but they could feed the slots.

I paced, sat, paced some more, and finally decided to walk the almost five miles into town. I would depend on the “kindness of strangers,” as I had so many times in my life, and hope that some nice family on their way to church would pick me up on that windy Sunday morning. I set out. I made my way past the barbed wire, through the electric gates, down the sidewalk, and through the parking lots. It was so much farther to the highway than I realized; it was so much chillier than I had thought.

Finally on the highway, I walked with traffic as long as there was a semblance of a shoulder and then crossed the highway when the narrow, winding, two-lane state highway felt too dangerous. I prayed, walked, and hoped for a ride. I stumbled when a car came whizzing by, and I had to step down into the grass to avoid being sideswiped. They probably think I am some old woman who spent the night at the casino and is now making her way home, broke and hungover. Or they may think I am an escaped convict dressed as a woman. Although if I was going to dress like a woman, I would be a woman in a coat! I laughed to myself. No one stopped. I sang one of my favorite Carrie Newcomer songs, “You can do this hard thing. It’s not easy I know, but I believe that it’s so. You can do this hard thing.” I pulled my hands up into my shirt and hunched my shoulders.

Finally, an old white sedan, with one bumper hanging, stopped across the road, and an older man with a stubbly beard and a ball cap covering his white hair leaned out the driver’s window: “Do you need a ride?” The answer to the prayer that I was hoping for looked more like a benevolent family than this single old man, but I squinted at him in the morning sun and decided that he looked kind. I made up my mind quickly, hollered, “Yes,” and dashed across the cracked cement highway. I got in the front seat to a gospel quartet singing a song about heaven on the radio.

He introduced himself as Fred. “Ruth,” I said and offered my hand. He told me he was on his way to the casino and saw me, so he turned around. “How kind of you. Do you know where the Quaker church is?” “Sure do!” We pulled slowly back onto the highway and plodded toward town. “Is your husband an Indian?” he asked. “No, we are Quakers, and we have visited this church before. We really like it.” “I used to know all them Indian boys,” Fred explained. “I drunk a lot of whiskey with them boys!” he laughed, but then hastened to assure me, “But not since 1992. That’s when I quit.”

I explained why I was out on the highway. “People won’t stop for you out there near the prison. They probably think you are an escapee,” he chuckled. I explained about the underwire bra and then wished I hadn’t mentioned underwear. Fred turned the steering wheel to the right. “No,” I say. “The church is straight ahead.” Had I been wrong about this kindly looking old man?

“That’s a cop behind me with his lights on,” Fred said. “Better see what he wants. Sit tight.” He stopped the car, and I sat tight. The young deputy sheriff talked with Fred and then walked to my side of the car. I couldn’t figure out how to roll down the dirt-streaked window, so I opened the door. “Are you all right, ma’am?” “Yes, officer.” I realized that he must have seen the old man pick me up. I wondered if Fred was well-known to the local police.

I noticed the ruddy-faced officer’s beautiful blue eyes. He was young but not a rookie. I explained that the old man was taking me to church. “This car doesn’t have a valid license tag. If it is over 90 days, I can impound the car. You better stand over here while I run this. This man may have a problem.”

“No!” I argued. “Don’t worry, lady. I will make sure you get to church.”

“I’m not worried about me. This poor old man doesn’t have the money to get this old car out of impoundment.” Right there on the road to Hominy, I started to pray.

© Ryzhkov

I don’t usually ask for specifics, believing that God knows more about the ways of this world than I do. Though I have been known to argue with God through the years, I usually pray for the “best possible outcome” for everyone involved. I prefer to hold a problem or person “in the Light” than to mouth actual words. But that day, I was praying for intervention. I was praying with words. I was praying with tears in my eyes and fear in my heart for poor, kind Fred.

He made his way around the car and looked down in the ditch. “I don’t have no tickets or nothin’. It should be okay. I don’t have the money for that tag ‘til the middle of next month.” He took his hat off with one hand and scratched the top of his head with that same hand. “I see a can down there in that ditch. I’d get down there and get it, but he might not like it.” Fred motioned over his shoulder at the deputy in the front seat of his vehicle. “I collect cans.”

“There is some money in it,” I said. “Not as much as there was once, I hear.”

“Twenty-six cents a pound. I got $26 last time I took some in.” He smiled proudly.

The deputy got out of his car and asked Fred his full name and age. “I was 80 years old on the first day of February,” Fred smiled broadly.

“Well, happy birthday. Do you have your insurance verification?”

Fred’s smile faded. He pulled a wrinkled envelope full of expired insurance verification forms, receipts, invoices, and the title to the old car out of the overflowing glove compartment.

I turned to face the officer; looked into his blue eyes whenever he looked in my direction; and kept praying, not loud, but my lips were moving: “Lord God, we need intervention here. We need mercy. We need kindness. I’m praying for Fred. And I’m praying for this officer. We need mercy. We need kindness. Are they the same thing, God? I don’t know, but we need your Spirit here today. We need God here today. We need You and all Your holy attributes here today, especially kindness and mercy.”

Fred was not current with his insurance. The officer took a deep breath; I believe he was breathing in the Spirit that day. “Fred, I am not going to give you a ticket. In fact, I’m not going to give you even a warning. But you gotta take this lady on into town to church and then go straight to your house and park this car until you can get the money to get your tag and get this thing insured!”

“I will, Officer; I will!” We got back in the old car and drove on into town with the cop right behind us.

“I’m so sorry, Fred,” I apologized, as Elvis Presley crooned, “Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on, let me stand.” “If you had not come back to pick me up, he would not have seen your tag, and you wouldn’t have been caught.”

“Oh, no, don’t worry about that. It woulda happened sooner or later.”

I remembered the bag of quarters in my pocket. I placed them on the console. “I’m gonna leave you these quarters.”

“No, you don’t need to do that!” Fred protested.

“Sure, I do. I’m not going to be able to feed my friend, so you might as well use them. But I don’t want you to go back to that casino and use these quarters to feed the slots. It will be very tempting, but that’s not what I am giving them to you for.” I shook my finger at him and then laughed to make sure he knew I was joking . . . kind of.

“I wasn’t going to the casino to gamble, lady. I was going to talk to them about a job. They called me to come out and talk to ‘em. I need me a job.”

We wished each other good luck and God’s blessing. Fred drove home with the cop right behind him, and I made my way into the church service, which was nearing its end. I pushed open the ancient doors and sat in the beautiful silence, surrounded by Osage women and their kids and an Anglo preacher who drives all the way from Tahlequah every weekend to serve this tiny congregation. I let myself sink into revelation.

My prayer was, and is, very specific: Help me be kind. Help me show mercy. Help me not judge. Help me to be open to Spirit’s timing and, please, God, a little more intervention here. 

With a deep cleansing breath, I realized that on the road to Hominy, way had opened for me. “Blessed are the merciful,” I whispered while my heart burned within me. I realized that mercy requires that the merciful have the power, the privilege, the authority to be kind. The deputy had the power, as all law enforcement does in this country, and yet, this time, he chose to show mercy. Fred has no power, but he is kind. Kindness is a lifestyle for Fred.

I remembered with shame my assumption that Fred, because he is poor, would be tempted to gamble away those quarters. I pondered the inequities of life and my own peculiar position of privilege. I am White, elderly, college-educated, and female. I am retired, ten years younger than Fred, yet I look for something worthwhile to fill my time while Fred looks for a job and picks up cans. I saw the cycle of rural poverty: no money to get his tag to make his car legal but unable to get the money because he can’t get to work because he doesn’t have a car that is legal.

I queried my attitude toward prayer. I have rarely felt so centered as when I prayed for Fred and the deputy on the side of that two-lane highway. I contemplated the timing of it all because I still felt guilty, since my plight caused Fred to get stopped. I realized that he was right; it would have happened eventually. I know enough poor people in my own poverty-stricken rural county who are stopped for cracked windshields, broken tailgates, or lapsed tags by cops who are hoping to find drugs.

I realized something else: when the corrections officer at the prison didn’t show me mercy, it allowed me to stand witness to Fred’s traffic stop. My very presence may have helped persuade the deputy sheriff to be lenient. This thought led me to thoughts of grace, and I prayed. My prayer was, and is, very specific: Help me be kind. Help me show mercy. Help me not judge. Help me to be open to Spirit’s timing and, please, God, a little more intervention here. Help Fred find a friend that has a car that is legal so that he can get out to the casino and get that job. Maybe he can buy him a little gas with those quarters.

Ruth Askew Brelsford

Ruth Askew Brelsford and her husband, Les, are members of Green Country Meeting in Tulsa, Okla., though they more regularly attend Kiamichi Worship Group near their home in Red Oak, Okla. Ruth is retired after 30 years of teaching theater and speech in both high school and college. She volunteers at the local minimum security correctional facility.

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