Earlier this week I had the opportunity to participate in a retreat on VocationCARE sponsored by the Fund for Theological Education (FTE). The purpose of the retreat was to explore a new model for nurturing young leaders in the process of exploring vocation, both inside and outside the church. We were led through the process of identifying by answering questions using our personal stories of experiencing God.

It wasn’t until I was asked to tell my story during this VocationCARE retreat that I realized the experiences and stories I shared were encounters with God. One of the questions that led me to share my story was “Why do you do what you do, love what you love or care about what you care about? Tell a story that gives the listener some sense of what draws or compels you to do what you do.”

I have a passion for reaching out to poor and at-risk youth, which seems simple enough, but this time I was asked to explain why through my personal story. After reflecting on my life’s experiences, I told a story about when I was 11 years old. It was a cold, foggy morning in San Francisco. My mother had given me bus fare to get to school and home at the end of the day. When she handed me my bus fare, she looked at me with sadness in her eyes and said, “We don’t have enough for you to eat lunch today.” I got to school and went through the routine of the day, attending classes but somewhat distracted by the fact that I was getting hungry and concerned that if other kids saw that I didn’t get in the lunch line, they would know I didn’t have money and make fun of me. When lunchtime came I had to make a hard choice: use my bus fare to buy lunch, eat and avoid potential embarrassment but then have to figure out how I was going to get home, or go hungry but get home without a problem. On that day I chose lunch.

At the end of the school day I walked as far as I could so that the other kids could not see me. I started looking for strangers that I could ask for bus fare. There were those who cut their eyes at me as if I should be ashamed of myself for asking if they had any change to help me get home. There were those who avoided making eye contact with me so that I wouldn’t ask. But then there was that one woman who looked me in the eyes, smiled and said, “What do you need to get home?” It was a dollar and 25 cents.

It wasn’t until I attended this retreat with the Fund for Theological Education that I recognized that day in my life as an encounter with God, an experience of grace. I learned that my story and experiences are what God has used to guide my vocation and passion for helping poor and at-risk youth. During breaks at the retreat, I found myself wondering across the campus and surprisingly ending up at the same place to reflect: at a bus stop in front of the Emory Inn.

Oddly enough, while I sat there, the bus never came by. But God kept showing up, giving me new ideas and visions for service to meet the needs of His people. Sitting at that bus stop I now realized — 29 years later — that God’s first calling for me to serve took place when He used the kindness of that woman to show me what grace looks like. She responded to a need by asking a simple question that other were afraid to ask, “What do you need to get home?”

God is still using people to speak to children in need of someone to notice them and treat them like they are valued and worthy of respect. I think I’ll continue to make my way to the bus stop and to reflect and hear from God. Something tells me He’ll keep showing up.