Dan Conradt: I was a stranger, welcomed
I'd left the interstate 100 miles earlier. Interstate highways are fine if you're in a hurry, but I wasn't.
I was somewhere in eastern Colorado, and the mountains promised in the visitor's guide hadn't shown up yet.
A sign with a lighted arrow stood at the edge of the road, pointing to a crushed-rock driveway.
I'd seen signs like it outside bait shops, gas stations and mom-and-pop hotels, but never outside a church.
The sign had lost its "W," and invited the faithful to "Sunday orship at 10:00."
I was a quarter mile past the sign before the numbers registered.
I glanced at the dashboard clock: 9:56 a.m.
There was something endearing about the missing W.
I made a U-turn in the middle of the road — you can do that in eastern Colorado at 9:56 a.m. on Sunday morning — and doubled back toward the lighted sign. It told me the name of the church and that it was a denomination I was familiar with, meaning I wasn't likely to jump to my feet and shout "hallelujah!" at a time when the rest of the congregation lapsed into a moment of silence.
The door to the church creaked open as I approached and a greeter stepped out to welcome me. He had a fringe of white hair over his ears and Coke-bottle glasses that magnified the size of his eyes.
He reminded me of the wise old tortoise in the Tootsie Pop commercials.
"Good morning!" he said. I stepped into a narthex that smelled of candle wax and old books.
An organist, who might have been Mrs. Tortoise, was playing "The Old Rugged Cross," and I sat in a back corner of the sanctuary, in a patch of stained glass sunlight.
It felt like an oasis, as only a church can.
The service ended, and the pastor took what was apparently his customary place outside the door of the sanctuary to greet worshippers as they left.
I stood behind a mother and father with a little boy whose hair was held down by a generous helping of Brylcreem. The pastor greeted the young family, and they moved away.
"Welcome, friend," he said as I stepped up. "Are you visiting?"
"Just passing through, pastor," I said. "I was driving past your church and saw your service was about to begin and thought I'd stop."
"We don't get many visitors," he laughed. "Either you live here, or you're lost." I liked him instantly.
"Maybe you were called to visit us."
"Maybe I was," I said.
"Do you have time to join us in the fellowship hall?" he asked.
"The Ladies' Guild is serving treats this morning," he explained. The conspiratorial way he said "treats" helped me decide.
I took a place in the line that snaked toward the serving table and watched the people in front of me to avoid a "hallelujah!" moment; taking two treats seemed to be acceptable. Dropping two dollars in the "free will offering" basket seemed to be expected.
I helped myself to a cup of coffee, a thick piece of lemon cake and a saucer-sized brownie sprinkled with walnuts.
I was asked every few minutes for the next half hour if I was ready for more coffee. I said "yes" each time.
I was halfway through the brownie when she pulled back a metal folding chair and sat across the table from me. She was wearing a name tag that said her first name was Ruth, and her last name was something that made liberal use of S's and Z's. Her hair was piled high in a slate-gray beehive.
She seemed to know I was a stranger: "Where are you from?"
I told her. "Never heard of it," she said. Then, "How is the brownie?"
"Ma'am, I have to tell you, this is the best brownie I've ever had!"
Her smile revealed big, square teeth, and her cheeks turned a youthful pink.
"I made them!" she said with pride.
She sat across from me while I finished my brownie. I mumbled "Mmmmmm" a couple of times while I ate, and when the brownie was gone I wiped the corner of my mouth.
"Ma'am, that's not a brownie," I said. "That's a work of art."
She laughed and moved off to sit with a group of people at another table.
I finished my coffee — I think it was four cups, but it might have been five — and got up to leave.
Ruth intercepted me at the door.
"I thought you might like this for your trip," she said, handing me a paper plate covered with tin foil.
I got my first glimpse of the Colorado mountains midway through Ruth's second brownie.
And while I'm not nearly as familiar with the Bible as I should be, I knew I had just experienced Matthew 25:35: "I was a stranger and you welcomed me."