By Kathy Berken
Did you read the story last month about the man in Fresno, Calif., who reportedly appeared out of nowhere to rescue a man from a burning house? He didn’t stick around long enough to take credit for saving another’s life. A lot of people said he was an angel, a real one, not human.
Who knows for sure? But if he was human and just didn’t want the publicity, I wondered how he felt being mistaken for the real thing. Well, I might have a clue because it happened to me about 10 years ago.
It was a cold, dark, icy January night in the middle of rural upstate New York. My friend Rosanne and I were returning to her home in Rochester, looking for a place to eat. We saw a bar/bowling alley and decided this was as good as anything we might find in such a desolate area. We pulled into the parking lot and got out. As we walked towards the building, we saw a car parked by the entrance. The passenger door was open and three elderly-looking people were huddled there, reaching to the ground. As we came closer, we heard the commotion and noticed someone lying under the car.
All three were trying to pull the person out, but they struggled on the ice. Rosanne and I immediately asked, “Can we help?” One woman said, “My husband slipped and fell under the car and we can’t lift him.” Rosanne and I bent down, held the man under his armpits and carefully slid him out from under the vehicle. We helped him stand up. He said he was fine, just slid when he tried to get into the car. We held onto him until he was safely seated in the car.
They all said “Thank you,” and one added, “Let us pay you.” We both said, “No, no, really, we were just glad we could help.” It was the next moment I will never forget. One of the women looked at her friend and said very seriously, “These two are angels.” We laughed and said, “Oh no, we’re not angels. We just happened to be at the right place at the right time.” The women were insistent. “Yes you are. You are real angels. You are not human. God sent you. We just witnessed a miracle!”
Roseanne and I repeated that we were just glad to help and then we made sure they all got into the car safely. They drove away and we walked into the restaurant. We sat in our booth feeling stunned and shocked. Of course, we were grateful that we were in the right place at the right time as well but the woman’s insistent belief that they had absolutely encountered real non-human angels that night truly rattled us. On top of it, they’d probably go home and tell everyone.
We sat there for a long time in silence. Then Rosanne said, “Do you think we really are angels?” Then we both laughed. “Not a chance in hell,” we agreed.
We talked about angels all during supper. We agreed that whenever we had the opportunity to help someone, when we just happened to be in the right place at the right time, we would take that opportunity and help even if someone might mistake us again for the real thing.
That experience opened my eyes to the work of God everywhere, in big and small places. Since that amazing night, not only has God given me the grace on numerous occasions to help someone out — even if it was just to hold open a door or pick up a dropped package — but I’ve become increasingly aware of how often God uses us to assist others in need. Seriously, I seem to have stumbled across an awful lot of feathers in the last 10 years.
Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”