I like beer.
The flavors that range wide from malty to sour, the aroma of pine or spice or bread that rise off the best ones and that lace of foam that drapes down the glass as you make your way farther and farther to the bottom hook so many senses.
But the best beer I ever drank is one whose flavor or aroma I can’t tell you anything about, even though the memory of it still sticks with me powerfully some 30 years later. I know it was wet and there’s a good chance it was cold, but that’s about it.
The semester I’d spent studying in England had just wrapped up and I was on my way to meet a friend in Germany. I’d already changed all my money to Deutsche marks, so I had nothing to do but watch a spread of Western Europe speed past the window while I made the bread and cheese I’d packed last out the day.
And then, somewhere in Belgium, the Almighty brought me a drink.
It didn’t look like divine work when the two other people in my train cabin agreed to something in a language I couldn’t place and then one of them walked out the door. But when that man came back gripping three different kinds of beer and held them out in invitation for me to take whichever can I wanted, it sure felt like it.
As I still say in my head when I think of that moment, which is often, “I was a stranger in the land without money or even words to make the people understand me, and the Lord looked on me with kindness, and he provided beer.”
It’s fitting that the actual liquid in the can didn’t leave a lasting memory, because that wasn’t the real blessing.
The blessing was the welcome those strangers in my train car gave me. It pulled me from my isolation and showed me I was among people I could count on for kindness, people who wanted me to share their comfort when I wasn’t able to provide much of my own for the time being.
I’ll never know what faith those men on the train might have followed, but that day I felt them do the holy work of casting wide the net of friendship that makes it easier to pull through life.
I try to live up to their example. I miss the mark plenty, but I’m grateful when I notice an opening to try.
One came to me a couple weeks ago, pulling into a parking space beside mine with a loud thump-thump-thump.
It was a guy in a minivan loaded with tools and riding on a blown-out tire.
I was in a rush to wrap up an errand, but when the driver stepped out and made me understand through broken English that a car jack was not among those many tools, I think that beer from decades back warmed my heart to his plight.
Good thing. Between my ignorance of how to get my never-before-used jack out of the compartment it was bolted into and then how to assemble the thing, and the other guy’s insistence on trying to lift his vehicle from a point on the undercarriage that clearly wasn’t going to support the weight, it was not a job to go into grudgingly.
It didn’t help that my caveman Spanish was every bit as useless as his smattering of English.
We were both thrilled when we finally lowered the minivan onto the spare tire.
“Vaya con Dios,” I told the stranger before I left, “Go with God.”
He pulled me in for a hug and a benediction of his own: “Dios te bendiga.” “God bless you.”
As I walked away, I remembered how lonely it is at the best of times to be in a land where you can’t understand the language most other people are speaking.
And these are very far from the best of times for someone to try to make their way in this land with a smattering of thickly accented English.
I got a racist shout myself from a cruel man in my own city not too long ago just for walking near him while looking Latino. I can’t imagine how frightening it is to pull up next to a stranger here and have to ask for kindness when your only solid language is Spanish.
None of us is going to fix this alone, but we sure can do the holy work of sharing some comfort with people in our own patch of the world who might not have much of their own for the time being.
The wider we cast that net of friendship, the better off every one of us under it is going to be.
Richard Espinoza is a former editor of the Johnson County Neighborhood News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow him on Twitter at @respinozakc.