Sunday, January 14, 2001

Serve and be kind


I don't know Reverend Crawford personally but appreciated her sermon on kindness.

Reverend Carolyn Crawford is known throughout Southern California for her topical and powerful sermons, but speculation on what she would say was unusually high one particular week just after the holiday season.

As is customary each Monday, the topic for the Sunday sermon was posted on a sign outside the church. This week it read: "The Gospel According to Nordstrom."

Members of the congregation were no strangers to upscale Nordstrom department store. They just couldn't conceive of what a merchandising mecca had to do with the gospel and its lessons.

Some thought perhaps the talk might be blasphemous. Others felt the unlikely theme might be stimulating. One thing was certain: This unlikely title created quite a stir in town.

With such interest, often the reality can't match the hype. On rare occasions, it "hyper" ventilates and goes even higher!

The church was packed that Sunday. The hushed congregation awaited Reverend Crawford's sermon. She began by telling of her recent visit to the bustling, luxurious atmosphere of a marbled Nordstrom store during the holiday season.

She recounted the delights throughout the store: the abundant decorations; the holiday music expertly performed by an elegant, tuxedoed piano player; the potpourri and expensive perfume. Flocks of charmed shoppers swarmed in and out laden with finely wrapped gifts.

But then she said the shared atmosphere of the department store revelry was shattered. A bag lady, hunched over, clad in torn clothes and filthy with stench, walked through Nordstrom's doors.

Curious, Reverend Crawford decided to follow her, certain that security would take care of this woman promptly as unwelcome as she was incongruous. The Reverend thought she might have to intervene when security arrived, so that she could soften the blow to the woman's dignity when she was asked nicely, but firmly, to leave.

Yet her original interest in this interloper would soon change. Though Reverend Crawford saw the stark contrast of this woman to the gracious abundance of the store, Nordstrom employees must have seen something else.

No one tried to stop the bag lady as she shuffled through the store. She reached the most elegant and pricey Special Occasions Department, where she was greeted warmly and professionally by a smartly-attired saleswoman.

The Reverend was incredulous. What did these people see? Reverend Crawford stood nearby and eavesdropped. She listened, astonished by what she heard.

The salesperson's responses to the customer were solicitous, not patronizing; respectful, not pitying. When the customer asked to try on evening dresses, the salesperson brought over one gown after another, asking for her most discriminating opinion.

The lady inspected each gown, trying on several. With infinite patience as an hour slid away, the salesperson carefully evaluated which gowns she felt were the most flattering and appropriate for this customer.

The bag lady decided she was finished. She left the fitting room, thanked the salesperson, and walked out of the Special Occasions Department.

This woman looked different. Her head was held high, her gait seemed smoother, and there was a new light in her eye. She'd just experienced Nordstrom.

Reverend Crawford was dumbfounded. She approached the Nordstrom saleswoman. Uncharacteristically at a loss for words, the Reverend simply asked why she'd spent an hour with this bag lady, helping her try on thousand-dollar gowns at a store which religiously measures employee sales per hour!

The composed Nordstrom saleswoman looked Carolyn Crawford straight in the eye, answering as if the question was as simple as asking for the time of day: "This is what we are here for: To serve and be kind."

The Reverend closed her sermon by asking her congregation, "Couldn't we say the same thing about ourselves as churchgoers? As human beings? That we are here to serve and be kind?"

This was far from the end of this particular sermon. News of the message spread beyond one Sunday morning at one church. Churchgoers retold the story to friends and associates.

The New York Times highlighted the incident. Demand for the sermon became so overwhelming that the church eventually sold audiotape copies.

Nordstrom salespeople were both humbled and challenged when they heard the story. In a culture that asks employees to give their best to customers under all circumstances, the bar had been raised.

Each time this very real story is told, each time it's shared, its truth grows within and without. May we all have the opportunity and the grace to serve and be kind.

As the young Anne Frank said, "How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world."

The Rev. Dr. Knox Herndon is the pastor of His House Community Church (SBC), a substitute school teacher in the Fayette County School System, and a former Army chaplain. The church is currently meeting in the American Legion Log Cabin in Fayetteville but will be moving to its new location near Senoia soon. Dedication service at the new location will be Super Bowl Sunday, Jan. 28. The prayer line number is 770-719-2365, and the e-mail address is

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