Of all the surprises that my birthday held, the one I least expected was a stranger’s serenade.

Naturally, this requires an explanation.

The week before my birthday, I’d dropped off my well-loved boots at a local shoe-repair shop to be re-soled. These boots have been my go-to footwear for two and a half years, ever since I acquired them during a freezing-cold vacation for which I was ill-prepared. (19 degrees in Alabama? When does that happen?) So, when the soles of the boots opened into holes, I determined that my friend Roberto would be the one to rescue them.

Roberto had repaired my husband’s work boots previously, so I knew he would do a good job. I dropped my boots off on a Thursday, and he told me to come back Saturday. We haggled on the price, exchanged names and pleasantries, and I felt great — soon, I’d have boots that wouldn’t leak water onto my feet when it rained!

Saturday arrived, and I went to the shoe-repair shop. Roberto apologized, saying that the new soles had come in late, and I’d need to come back on Monday. Since Monday was my birthday, I felt a flare of annoyance. The boots were supposed to be ready, so that I could wear them this weekend! He’d said. And this wasn’t a cheap repair … the good feelings I’d had about the errand evaporated. I was tempted to glower.

And then I remembered — not so much with my mind as with my heart — my friend Cassandra*, who lives at L’Arche in DC. (L’Arche is a faith-based non-profit that creates homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together in community.)

Cassandra is a lady in the truest sense of the word; she is full of grace, one of the most forgiving people I know. She prays for those she loves, despite the fact that some, in infirmity or indifference, have not always loved her well. And to hear her sing …

Thinking of Cassandra, I realized that Roberto was doing the best he could. I didn’t need my boots right away. I could wait until Monday. I could forgive, and let this one go. So I smiled and told Roberto that I’d be back Monday, which — I couldn’t resist mentioning — would be my birthday.

On Monday, I stopped at the shoe-repair shop. It was a beautiful day, and I was feeling buoyed by the love of the good people that I am blessed to know. Roberto greeted me enthusiastically, pulling my boots out from among dozens. The shoes were polished and outfitted with new soles, and as he handed them to me, he said, “Happy Birthday!”

“Thank you!” I exclaimed. I was happy to see my boots, glad that I’d given Roberto the benefit of the doubt. Then, apropos of nothing, he stepped across the counter, turned off the in-house music, and, in the sudden silence, said cheerfully, “OK, now you sit down!”

I glanced at the door, debating whether or not to bolt. Nice as he was, this guy was still a stranger … but I had nothing to fear. Roberto turned around and pulled a guitar from the wall. “I play a song for you,” he said.

I started laughing; he was going to play the guitar?! So much for being scared. “Um … OK!” I said.

The last traces of worry dissipated as he began to play. It was amazing: here was this man, stepping out from behind the counter and playing his instrument as though it was an extension of himself, with utter command and love. His polish-blackened hands danced as he sang, in Spanish, about a woman with beautiful eyes.

As the song ended, I clapped and said, “Bravo!” He segued into “Happy Birthday”, singing in English this time. However, he used the Spanish version of my name — Carolina — which is what my husband calls me. Mi Carolina, he said when he asked me to marry him, and Mi Carolina it has been ever since. I love it.

After the song ended, I thanked Roberto, and he spoke a blessing over my next year, saying that it would be “a year of Grace.” I was blown away. We hugged goodbye, and I knew that, once again, a stranger had brought God near for me. I could practically hear God laughing at my astonishment, saying, Glad you didn’t let yourself get too ticked off about coming back to the store today! If you had, I wouldn’t have been able to give you Roberto’s gift.

As I walked home with my boots, I could hear Cassandra’s voice in my mind as well, the way it sounded one night when we sang together in the L’Arche kitchen. I was on routine, and everyone else was upstairs getting ready for bed. I’d come down to help Cassandra with her routine, but instead, we swayed to the music that was playing. The song was, “Oh My Sweet Carolina”, performed by Ryan Adams and Emmylu Harris.

Ordinarily, I’d feel self-conscious about singing with just one other person, but with Cassandra, self-consciousness bowed out, in the face of something bigger. And as we sang together, I thought, This is what heaven must be like: a place where we offer our songs to one another without fear …

A place where Love calls you out by name.


Oh my sweet Carolina
What compels me to go?
Oh my sweet disposition
May you one day carry me home.


Have you ever been surprised by a stranger’s kindness?

If so, tell me about it in the Comments section below!

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  1. Carolyn B June 11, 2012 at 2:16 PM - Reply

    I’m going thru so much right now and this was a message from God.

    • Caroline McGraw June 11, 2012 at 2:32 PM - Reply

      Carolyn, I’m so glad the story resonated with you, and met you in the midst of difficulty. Sending encouragement and prayers your way!

  2. Carolyn Barnett June 11, 2012 at 2:20 PM - Reply

    I needed to here this today. It truly was a message from God via your blog.

  3. Joanna June 11, 2012 at 2:41 PM - Reply

    One time I was in a hotel lobby standing at check-in waiting for my key card. My daughter was about 4 at the time. She has many special needs, cannot talk and is medically fragile. She was just a step behind me waiting patiently in her wheelchair when I noticed a HUGE tattooed man with a long beard and hair, wearing all leather, start to head our way. It became obvious he was going to approach Tess so I put my hand on her wheelchair and decided to just see what he was going to do. I was a bit apprehensive but also didn’t want to judge someone I didn’t even know based on looks. As he stepped right in front of Tess he sort of looked at me and smiled and then knelt down so he was eye to eye with her, took her little hand in his massive paw-like one and said in one of the most gentle voices I have ever heard, “Hi, sweetheart. You sure are beautiful.” Tess just lit up! She just loved this stranger! I was near tears from the unexpected tenderness of the moment. He proceeded to tell me that he an his other biker friends often did rides to benefit special needs children and that Tess was so beautiful that he couldn’t resist saying hi to her. It has been almost 5 years since then and I still get teary when I think about that moment. God most definitely gave us both a gift that day!

    • Caroline McGraw June 11, 2012 at 2:59 PM - Reply

      Joanna, what a beautiful story! I can feel the power and emotion of that moment in reading your words; truly, as you say, you were given a gift that day. Thank you for sharing that special moment.

  4. Mary Shapiro June 11, 2012 at 4:43 PM - Reply

    THANK YOU Caroline and Joanna! (as the tears drop on my keyboard and my mouth turns into a smile 🙂 God is definitely present–especially in the “unexpected” and the “stranger”.
    I’ve moved from DC to the country of N. VA and, although I LOVE the lake and egrets and osprey the stars and frogs and herons, how do I get to know my neighbors? These are families or couples that have lived miles apart on long driveways and I’ve been told “appreciate their privacy”. I went to a a local winery (that will be a vendor at our music Festival this Saturday) and lo and behold, there was a “neighbor” carrying a cake. “It’s to help them celebrate their 1st year,” said Lee. And, “I want to make one for you and Jeff to celebrate your wedding too!” Perhaps baking a cake (or your amazing BROWNIES Caroline 🙂 and having the courage to knock on a door is the best way to make a new friends.
    And as you said, Sharing music is a lovely way to come together too!
    Keep on singing, y’all!

    • Caroline McGraw June 11, 2012 at 5:37 PM - Reply

      Amen to that! Thank you, Mary – it’s always good to hear that a story makes an impact. And you are one of the most welcoming people I know – if anyone can make friends in the country, it’s you. 😉

  5. Greg Lease June 11, 2012 at 9:14 PM - Reply

    For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. John 1:16

    Caroline, You have once again brought to life the revealing of God’s love and grace. What a beautiful story. And Joanna’s story of Tess and the huge, tattooed biker is another example. When we allow God room, he is so ready to reveal his love and pour out his grace upon us, sometimes through the most unlikely situations. I’m reminded of Eugene Peterson’s comment, “As one medieval saying has it, ‘God draws straight lines with a crooked stick.’ He can and does work with us, whatever the moral and spiritual condition in which he finds us. God, we realize, does some of his best work using the most unlikely people.” It’s up to us sometimes to just try and not get in his way through our perception of expectation and entitled attitudes. And the good news is that he also invites us to messengers of his grace to those whose paths we cross.

    • Caroline McGraw June 11, 2012 at 9:26 PM - Reply

      ‘God draws straight lines with a crooked stick’ – I’d never heard that one before, but I like it, especially because every stick is naturally crooked! Thank you for sharing, Greg!

  6. Donna June 11, 2012 at 11:11 PM - Reply

    Such a wonderful thought…heaven, where we offer our songs to each other without fear. Thank you for sharing this story- it makes me feel braver about sharing what matters most.

    • Caroline McGraw June 12, 2012 at 6:24 PM - Reply

      You’re most welcome, Mom – so glad that you liked it, and that it inspired bravery in you! 🙂

  7. Mary June 11, 2012 at 11:49 PM - Reply

    Ricardo’s blessing: “a year of Grace” – indeed, each of our years, our days, our moments is full of Grace – if we but notice. How wonderful when we do! Thanks for opening our eyes anew! And for starting a conversation – grace upon grace!

    • Caroline McGraw June 12, 2012 at 6:25 PM - Reply

      Wonderful, indeed – thank you, Mary. I love writing about and sharing those moments … that way, I get to enjoy them twice. 😉

  8. Renee June 12, 2012 at 1:04 AM - Reply

    What a lovely and moving post, and also a beautiful story from Joanna about the tattooed biker and the kindness he extended to her daughter. I have been struck with the kindess of strangers on more than one occasion, but right now the one that most stands out for me was a time a couple of years ago when my car broke down at a rest stop on the way to my mom’s house across the state.

    Firstly, I was forever grateful to God that it happened at a rest stop where I could have access to food, water, telephone, and a toilet. Also it was safer than being stranded by the side of the road. But, I did not expect that a young couple at that rest stop, who spotted me peering under the hood of my car, would stop and offer assistance. The husband looked at the car, but he wasn’t entirely sure what the problem was. Even though they couldn’t offer any mechanical assistance, he and his wife insisted on staying with me until they were sure that help was on the way. I was so grateful, because I knew they had someplace to be, as well, but they said they had been in my spot before and were taking the opportunity to pay forward a favor someone had done for them.

    I was really, really blessed that day. The tow truck company didn’t usually make trips out as far as I was, but for some reason, they did that day, and I was able to get my car towed to my own mechanic back in town. Over the next couple of days while it was being repaired, I was able to be comfortable in my own home and a friend from work picked me up and took me to work, and back home again, and then to pick up my car when it was ready. It was astounding how all of the help I needed was right there exactly when I needed it. I don’t know if it was good karma or what, but to this day, I am one blessed and grateful lady!

    • Caroline McGraw June 12, 2012 at 6:26 PM - Reply

      Glad you shared your story, Renee – it’s powerful to hear how many people offered their aid and help to you that day!

  9. carolyn June 12, 2012 at 1:51 AM - Reply

    thank you for posting
    is that a picture of roberto????
    a beautiful story well told and worth rehearing.. i just read it to a friend so that makes 3
    from another Carolina

  10. Tiffany Lekas June 22, 2012 at 1:39 AM - Reply

    What a wonderful story!

  11. Cynthia Lum June 24, 2012 at 4:03 AM - Reply

    What a wonderful post. I’m so glad I found it through Lacey and Christian’s Blog.
    It seems when people are faced with some one different or a different circumstance than what was expect far too many people are quick to judge and quick to react with criticism. However as your and Joanna’s stories both exemplified when we show some restraint from “evil” reactions it gives room for GOD to show his presence and Grace. Thank you for the reminder of how to invite God’s grace into our life.

    • Caroline McGraw June 25, 2012 at 10:36 PM - Reply

      Wow, thank you, Cynthia! I’m so glad you found AWCC too. And yes, that’s so true – it’s easy to react in a negative, critical way, and time and time again I’m reminded of how much I miss out on when I go that route! All we can do is invite grace, indeed.

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