It was about 35 years ago when this stranger showed up in our driveway at 2 a.m., hoping to spend the night.

He did give us fair warning. And we had offered an invitation. But he was, nonetheless, a stranger.

The phone had rung just after midnight. Joan and our two children were already asleep. I was multi-tasking: writing my sermon (due to be preached within 11 hours), and watching “Star Trek,” re-run in syndication on local TV. No, not the best way to go about the homiletical task, but I was serving my first so-called “supply” pastorate, and hadn’t developed any self-discipline at all. I was very part-time at that little church, while working full-time in radio ministry for the Presbyterians. The late-night phone call startled me, and I abandoned the Enterprise and the Apostle Paul to run to the phone before it woke the whole house.

With no little anxiety, I answered. “Hey, Jeff! How you doing?” A bit of relief. It didn’t sound like an emergency.

“I’m doing fine,” I replied to a voice I didn’t yet recognize. “How about you?” Did he tell me his name? Did I not hear it, more worried than attentive?

“I’m great. What are you doing?”

“I just working on my sermon for the morning.” No sense mentioning the “Star Trek” thing.

“Oh, yeah? Hey, listen. You once told me that if I was ever in your neighborhood I should come by. Maybe even crash at your place.”

“Yeah, sure.” (Really? I did? Who might I have said that to? And where?)

“Well, look; I’m on the road now, and thought I might take you up on the offer.” (Fine, but who are you?)

“Great,” I fibbed. “When were you thinking you might be here?” (I was thinking someday, or in a few days.)

“I’m in Petersburg right now, and heading up your way. I  stopped at a gas station and got some directions, and then found this phone booth.”

Now? So, you’re coming tonight. About a half-hour then.”

“Yeah; you sure it’s OK? I really appreciate it. It’s been a long drive.” (This was my chance to get some kind of hint about who this voice belonged to, so I asked…)

“So, remind me where you’re coming from.”

“Athens, Georgia.”

No clue. “Well, let me give you some directions for when you get off 95.” I did so, probably not very clearly under the circumstances, but I didn’t want him calling back again and waking the family. When we had hung up, I went upstairs to see if Joan were awake. Of course she was. There was a phone by the bed, and the ringing had awakened her.

“Who was that?” she asked.

“I’m not sure, but he’s going to be spending the night!”

We still chuckle, remembering her next question. “Does he smoke?”

“Hon, I don’t know who he even is, much less his personal habits.”

“Well, if he does, tell him to smoke on the porch, not in the house.”

In the next few minutes, we devised our strategy. I was assuming the caller was a youth or young adult I had met at Montreat, or one of the many camp or conference centers where I had led retreats related to my radio shows. With no extra beds, he’d sleep on the sofa in the living room. The room had double doors that would give him privacy. I would indeed ask about his smoking needs, and after he closed his doors, I’d leave a twenty-dollar bill in plain sight on the kitchen table. Just so he didn’t go rummaging around looking for something to steal.

Joan went back to sleep (I guess), and I went back to my sermon, sending Kirk and his starship off on a journey where no man [sic] had gone before. I know at least an hour went by. And then I heard the distinctive sound of an original VW engine rattling at the end of the driveway. I went to meet the stranger, half-curious and half-concerned. Even in the dark, I could tell the car was packed with the guy’s belongings. There was even stuff on the roof.  I guess he spoke first. “It’s been a long time,” he said as he walked up the drive.

“Yeah.” Really, that’s all I could say.

“How’s school?” he asked as we shook hands.

“I’m not in school,” I explained. Oh-oh.

“Something’s not right here,” the stranger admitted. “Are you Jeff Kellam?”

“Yep.”

“Man, you’re not the Jeff Kellam I know.”

“No, I guess not. So, what Jeff Kellam were you expecting?”

“He goes to UVA. When I asked at the gas station where UVA was, they said Richmond. And you were right there in the Richmond phone book, so I figured…”

“No, UVA is in Charlottesville.”

“Where’s that?”

“It’s probably another hour plus from here. You’d have to get on 64 West and follow the signs. And then find your friend somehow, locate his dorm or apartment… Plus, you’d be calling in the middle of the night! Listen, why don’t you just ‘crash’ here, and get a fresh start in the morning.” So generous of me. And foolish.

“I hate to put you out…you sure it’s OK?” I told him of the arrangements in the living room and asked whether he smoked. He got a sleeping bag from the VW, and I showed him the downstairs half bath, and told him of our schedule in the morning, that we’d have to be getting up to get ready for church…

“Oh, I’ll probably be gone by then,” he said. “I do appreciate the trouble.”

And then I asked, “Didn’t you get a clue that I wasn’t your guy when I said I was working on my sermon?”

“I just figured you were kidding around! The other Jeff Kellam has quite a sense of humor!” As he closed the living room doors, I found the twenty and left it on the kitchen table. In the time I had been waiting for his arrival, I had finished the sermon, sort of, and headed upstairs, way past my bedtime.

Joan was still awake. “So who did it turn out to be?”

“No idea,” I admitted. I explained the mix up,  and pondered whether his story made much sense. It occurred to me that with my radio program in syndication and on an Athens, Georgia radio station, maybe he heard my sign-off each week, the one where I invited listener mail to be sent to a Richmond post office box. And maybe he figured I’d be the kind of person who was a kind person, who would certainly supply a room to a stranger.

In the morning, I went downstairs first, just to be sure everything was all right. I saw that the living room was empty, and that he and his things were gone. I wondered what else was gone. Nothing, it turned out. Even the twenty-dollar bill was where I left it. And right next to that was a note. It read, “Thank you so much for your hospitality. Few would have done as much. If you are ever in Stowe, Vermont, please look me up.” And he signed his name.

Well, that wasn’t likely, the Vermont thing. But what a good feeling we had, that we had welcomed a stranger, and that all had turned out fine, and that we would enjoy telling this story for decades.

The funny thing is, of course, that in 1993, we moved to Vermont and we were in Stowe a lot. I had saved the stranger’s note all those years, but it was packed away, lost somewhere in the attic, and we were never able to look him up. Just as well; angels are best left to mystery. “Unawares,” as they say.

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