...For the LORD is watching over your journey. Judges 18:6
I am not one for conferences. I avoid them like the plague. I don’t like to network. And, I think I know why. It hearkens back to a winter bus ride that I took as a teenager to a large gathering of Christian young adults in the Mid-West. The purpose of the youth conference was to motivate and inspire hundreds of young people to go forth and evangelize the globe. I’m not certain that the experience inspired me much, but it did motivate me to stay clear of conferences from that point on. Here’s how it all unfolded…
On the chilly morning of our departure, my parents drove me to a big parking lot at the University of Rhode Island where we were to board a bus for our long journey. I saw many busses in the lot, big streamlined coaches designed for passenger comfort over long distances. “This won’t be so bad,” I considered. A small group of us were stamping our feet against the cold February air, awaiting the arrival of our transport. When it finally pulled up,we registered something between shock and woe… it was a yellow school bus with a noisy engine, blue-ish exhaust pouring out of it’s rattling tailpipe, and not much to offer in the way of creature comforts, such as heat. Throwing my gear into the front bench seat, I meandered toward the rear of the rickety school bus. Our driver told us to get comfortable. We were going to be together for four hundred and fifty miles so we had better “settle in,” he advised. I was a gangly teenager and my frame did not settle in well. I put my knees up against the seat in front of me and slouched down as low as I could. Pulling my hat low over my eyes, I wondered if it was possible to sleep for an entire twelve hour journey. I soon learned that sleeping would be next to impossible. Every bump in the road bounced and jostled us, mercilessly banging my sore knees against the metal rear side of the seat in front of me.
We got lost toward evening somewhere in Pennsylvania. These were the days before cell phones. GPS was relegated to sci-fi films. Our driver had a big red road atlas which he consulted often. He would routinely pull over onto the roadside and flip through the pages, giving a low whistle, then, placing his hand on his forehead he would moan, “Aye yae yae!” We didn’t have to guess that we were off course. Night was falling and a snowstorm was right behind it. As dusk turned to dark, we could only see the white snowflakes in rapid descent, illuminated by the bus’s headlights. Soon we could only see a wall of white as the road we were currently lost on was now covered with a blanket of powdery snow. Our driver slowed to about twenty miles per hour and aimed for the center of the quickly disappearing roadway. It had been a long time since we last saw a sign of civilization.
The frosty bus plodded along until it could take no more of winter. With a cough and a bang, it rolled to a stop. “Are we there?” called out one wisecracker. “Aye yae yae…” said our driver. We were somewhere near the Pennsylvania/Ohio border, but just where we were was anybody’s guess. From the sound of it, it didn’t seem likely that our old yellow school bus was going to take us any further. The snow was falling at a furious pace. Our tires were already half buried in drifts. “I’ve gotta go find some help,” said our driver. “In the middle of nowhere?” questioned the twenty five or so youths on board the stricken bus. “There must be a gas station or something nearby,” he replied. As he went out the door, we heard him whistle “Aye yae yae…” In a matter of seconds he was invisible, lost in the falling snow as he and his flashlight trudged away from the bus, onward to “who knows where.” As the wind came up, we teens huddled together in the back of the broken down bus, now with no driver, no lights, no heat and no guarantee of anything anytime soon. My watch said it was nearly ten o’clock. It read nearly two in the morning when I was awakened by a shout, “Hallooo bus!” I peered out the ice covered windows and there I beheld a wonder.
Our rescue had come in the form of a huge, flat, logging sleigh, pulled through the snow by two large horses. The storm had passed and a bright moon shone silver over the icy landscape. Our bus driver sat atop the sleigh bench, looking for all the world like he was running for governor. Sitting next to him and holding the reigns was the farmer who had graciously agreed to get out of his warm bed in order to rescue us. We learned later that the bus driver had hiked more than two miles in the deep drifts before seeing a light. He headed for it, across fields and forest and upon reaching the farmhouse, he pounded on the front door, waking the old couple who lived there. Through frozen lips he managed to convey the urgency of his broken down bus carrying two dozen teenagers stranded in the snow. Out to the barn went the kindly farmer while his wife got busy in the kitchen. As our driver thawed for a moment by the wood stove, the farmer hitched up his team and pulled the sleigh out of the big barn. Together they headed east through the falling snow and about an hour later, they had us spotted. Grabbing our gear, we gratefully climbed aboard the huge wooden sleigh. We sat silently as we skimmed through the snow to the farmhouse. There we were treated to hot cocoa and blueberry muffins, fresh out of the oven. The farmer’s wife clucked about, passing out quilts and pillows and finding sleeping room on the floor or in an overstuffed chair. I grabbed a blanket and headed for the staircase where a window with a wide sill offered a cozy perch. There I spent the rest of the night, happy to be warm and dry.
The next morning, our yellow bus was towed to a farm where the resident farmer was an ace mechanic and by noontime we were back on the freshly plowed road, headed again for the youth conference. We had our stomachs full of a real farmhouse breakfast, and enough cheese and bread provisions to last a week thanks to the farmer’s good wife. “Go with God,” she had chirped as we waved goodbye. “Better late than never,” the driver said as we disembarked at the conference site later that same evening...
In the perspective of passing years, the arduous trip was made memorable due to the warm hospitality of an old farmer and his wife. They simply shared what they had with those in need. Kindness, caring, hospitality… At the end of the day, that is the best way to evangelize the globe. I learned that along the way - not at the conference. Most of what we hope for in the end comes, unexpectedly, along the way.