While I was at Baylor I had three jobs from my sophomore year until I graduated. I was a music theory lab instructor, a music theory tutor, and I was the Youth Minister for Memorial Baptist Church in Temple, Texas. Needless to say, I spent many hours driving back and forth to Temple on I-35. I made two trips each week and often three or four. As it is the aorta of Texas, there were thousands of people who traveled that stretch of highway every day, including some without cars.
You don’t see a lot of hitchhikers these days, but they were plentiful then. Sometimes they were out of town a bit and sometimes they were there waiting when I pulled onto the interstate – thumb up and suitcase, backpack, or duffel bag sitting on the ground beside them. I could only take them thirty-five miles down the road, but they were grateful to be that much closer to their destination and, if they were already out of town at night, they were grateful to make it to someplace with light.
I had a friend in Temple, Gary Castleberry, who was a seasoned hitchhiker. He gave me a couple of tips on picking up hitchhikers. The first was never to pick up a hitchhiker with no suitcase or bag. They might be running from someone or something. A second rule was to never pick up more than one hitchhiker at a time. Two or more could overpower you or one could distract you while the other one did you in.
I tried to follow his advice, but there was One Who I listened to even more than Gary when it came to picking someone up. I always prayed and asked God if I was supposed to pick up a person when I saw them on the road. Almost always the answer was “yes.” A few times it was “no” and there were even a very few times when I wasn’t sure and started to pull over when I looked in my rear-view mirror to see someone else pulling over to pick the guy up. And yes, I did violate Gary’s rules occasionally. I had as many as four hitchhikers in the car at one time – two from one pickup and two more a mile down the road. Those without bags were indeed often running, but not from the police – they were running from their own lives.
When I had the time I would pull into McDonald’s to get them something to eat. Someone who is truly hungry doesn’t savor the moment. There was no time to chit chat over the meal. They couldn’t get the food in fast enough – head down, right over the burger, much like a dog who doesn’t want another animal to get his food. Even as I write this I recall vivid images of those hungry souls.
I used these opportunities to get to know the people, usually by starting with a simple question – “Where are you headed?” After exchanging small talk I tried to introduce them to Jesus. It was easy to broach the subject. I was either on my way to or from work and my work was in a church. We had many philosophical conversations, many curiosity driven conversations, and a few quick ending conversations, but in all of the conversations they knew who my Lord was and what He could do for them. No one made a “profession of faith” during those trips, but I like to think that some did later. But whether they did or they didn’t, I knew that I had been obedient to God’s still, small voice saying “pick up this one” and I know that I was being obedient to his command to do such things for the least of these.