A carnival recently rolled into our town of Bowman, North Dakota. Living across the street from the fairgrounds, my mother and I watched the setup begin. Rides of all descriptions were quickly assembled, along with the usual food wagons of funnel cakes, corn dogs and cotton candy.
But behind all the glitzy lights and loud music I saw the people and imagined that this lifestyle must be very lonely. I wondered about the stories behind the faces. “A real opportunity lies right across the street,” I told Mom.
That afternoon I stopped at the thrift store where I volunteer, and several men from the carnival were there looking for clothing. One older man seemed to be the spokesman. When I asked if he was the boss he said he was an assistant and wondered what he might do for me. I said I didn’t want anything but was thinking about bringing over some food for their workers. He seemed surprised and said that would be nice.
Friday was a cool and overcast day. I made a large pot of my favorite veggie chili and took it to the fairgrounds a few minutes before the carnival started. I opened the back of my van and they came from every direction, gratefully accepting the big cups of hot chili. I ran out as two more men were coming. Assuring them I would return with something for them to eat, I went home and made grilled cheese sandwiches and grabbed some banana bread.
When I returned to the fairgrounds, the boss offered me anything I wanted from the hanging toys. I hadn’t done this for a gift, but I remember looking up at the prizes and thinking, the panda bear. At that moment he said over my shoulder, “If I were you, I would choose the panda bear. It’s the oldest carnival prize.”
The panda was nice, but the greatest gift I received was the smiles and comments from these people. My heart was touched. Several of the gentlemen called out from their post of duty, and when I walked over to them they would say, “God bless you.” One man told me he had not eaten a home cooked meal for a long time. Another older gentleman mentioned how lots of people are prejudiced against them. I asked one man how long he had been thus employed, and he said 25 years. I replied, “This must be a lonely life. Don’t you want to go home?” He said, “Ma’am, if I had a home that is where I would be.”
But the story continues. On Saturday night a friend came to visit from South Dakota, and we decided to walk over and ride the Ferris wheel. We bought our tickets and were in line when the operator noticed us. He motioned us to come forward and would not accept our tickets. He just said, “Enjoy the ride.” When we went to the merry-go-round, the same kindness was offered. People were still thanking me for the chili.
Sunday would be their last day in town and I wanted to do something more. I decided to make chocolate chip cookies and egg salad sandwiches. With my sister and a friend helping, we made sack lunches, placing pretty napkins and red-striped bags of cookies in the sacks along with the sandwiches. About 6 pm we arrived with our goodies. Again they came, even more than before. One lady offered words and hugs of appreciation before handing us each armbands as gifts.
I awoke very early the next morning, thinking about this entire experience. As I listened to the diesel engines and realized that the workers had been packing all night and would soon be traveling down the road to their next destination, I thought about Jesus and how He mingled with people, sympathizing with them and meeting their needs.
I believe we had the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, and I thank Him for the blessing He shared with us through a pot of chili and a panda bear.
Author Linda Mae Johnson, a retired florist, is involved in numerous ministries in her community of Bowman, North Dakota.