- The Washington Times - Friday, May 3, 2002

As anyone who lived in the path of the tornado that touched down in Calvert County, Md., on Sunday can attest, you just never know.

As we've seen from the photographs of La Plata, many homes were destroyed, yet others just yards away were barely blown. Since September 11, we've become keenly aware that life is so tenuous that we can be sitting at our desk or on our living room sofa one minute and "gone to glory" the next.

Three persons lost their lives in those unpredictable moments of that unprecedented tornado, rated an F5, or the strongest known to man. Indeed, as the Baptist preachers are wont to say, "There but by the grace of God go I."

Who among us has not sincerely said those words?

Today, I could write about baffling public policy and even more befuddling politicians, but I was so moved by a brief encounter with a Washington woman the other day, that a few friends insisted that I recount this serendipitous tale.

The purpose is not to toot my own horn, but to demonstrate that a little connection and a lot of compassion go a long way.

Every now and then, I find myself in the midst of what I have come to recognize as a "God Calling" moment. I'm referring to those surreal seconds in which we are certain that a greater hand than ours is present and at work.

Whenever I am feeling a little low, I invariably encounter someone or something that makes me want to count my blessings out loud.

In this instance, it was "Debra." That's all I know of her name. Debra couldn't weigh more than 100 pounds soaking wet, but she was wearing a jacket that hung from her shoulders like a tattered tent. She appeared unkempt and she had no teeth. She looked as though she hadn't had a good night's rest in days. She was holding two cigarettes in one hand, and to my shame, I immediately assumed that she had been drinking or drugging.

I literally ran into Debra in the middle of the street near the Soldiers' and Airmen's Home in Northeast, where few townies and even fewer tourists venture. I was parking near the only hometown haunt left in the District, where I was to meet a friend for happy hour.

Debra was begging and I am an easy mark for a Sistagirl. She walked up to my car and had the good manners to first inquire about my day.

"How's it going?" she asked.

"How's it going for you?" I replied.

"Well, I'm just hanging in there," she said.

"I know the feeling, my sista, I'm just hanging in there, too," I said.

"But I got a little problem," she continued.

"Join the club, I've got a few of my own," I said.

"There's this store around the corner, right," she informed me, as if I had no idea where this was going. "I just need a dollar to get something to eat."

"What do you think you're going to get to eat for a dollar?" I asked jokingly.

"Sardines," she answered incredulously, as if to say, "You don't know? What's wrong with you?"

Of course, she refused to allow me to accompany her to the store, but I wanted to make sure she actually bought something to put in her belly. I thought better of simply sending her on her on her way with cash.

After a few minutes, much coaxing and lightweight conversation, I convinced her to let me stroll down the sunny street with her.

When we arrived at the so-called "market," the owner barred the door and barked at us, saying Debra couldn't come in.

Now, you know I wasn't going to have that nonsense. I immediately got my back up for battle, but politely informed him that "as a citizen," she had every right to enter his business to buy whatever she pleased. Maybe they had history, but I didn't care.

He relented only after I insisted and told him that he wasn't going to get a dime of my money if Debra didn't come in and pick out her own purchases.

For her part, she was willing to acquiesce, but I wish you could have seen the way Debra strutted her little skinny self down the sparsely stocked aisles once she was allowed access. At that point, I realized that it was no longer about the money or even the food for her. It was about basic human dignity.

Someone thought enough of her to advocate on her behalf.

Hers was not the only attitudinal change. The now-smiling store clerk was all too happy to suggest items that Debra might want me to buy.

Debra's choices of "something really good" went to a can of chili, a bag of potato chips, two cans of sardines and, "oh, yea, some ice cream," which turned out to be a Popsicle.

It's a dingy, dogged world in the corner stores in the 'hood. We had to ask for the sardines, which were lined up on the counter behind the Plexiglas partition along with cans of tuna, Vienna sausages, potted meat and corned-beef hash.

It was, after all, the end of the month, when times are especially tight for everyone.

Listen, I spent a little more than $4 and gave Debra the dollar, as she requested, "so I can have it for tomorrow." Not a problem.

Like me, Debra was raised right. "What's your name again?" she asked. "I just don't know how to thank you. I don't know what I'd done if you hadn't come by."

"Don't even think about it. God sent me," I said without any warning or idea why. "Don't thank me, thank God."

Then, I let her know as one Sistagirl to another, I was able to empathize, not only sympathize, with her situation.

"Trust me, girl, I'm only returning the favor. Whether you need $1 or $100, it's all the same when you don't have it. What goes around comes around."

Debra and I parted company, going our separate ways after a simpatico look and a brief hug. However, I walked away wondering who was the giver, and who was the receiver here. I know that I am a better person for having spent those special few "God Calling" moments with her.

Was there a greater gift? No, we are all especially us Sistagirls in this thing called life, struggling to get by somehow together.

Every now and again, an F5 tornado or a simple human touch is what is needed as a reminder that "you never know," because "there but by the grace of God, go I."

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