steve-oden-column

Babe works the midnight shift at Walmart. He says it’s the best time to help those in need. He uses kind words and verses of Scripture. There are plenty of folks who need this brand of compassion, including an emotionally bereft widower who met Babe early in the morning when he had nowhere to go and no one with whom to talk about grief and God.

The Lord led Babe to Walmart, according to the 80-year-old who lost his son, granddaughter and wife in a span of three years. He knows firsthand the emotional abyss that comes with the death of a loved one.

“Yes, indeed,” says Babe, his ebony skin gleaming in the fluorescent lights at the checkout lane where he serves as cashier and counselor.

“The Lord spoke to me, told me this is where I needed to be. He said there were folks here who were hurting.”

Babe nods his head, birdlike, toward the cavernous discount complex’s interior. It’s a movement that emphasizes his point about all-night stores, gas stations and restaurants. This is the frontline if you want to minister to those with troubles.

The few people we can see seem to wander, as if they have no real reason to be in Walmart at this time of night except that is open and beckons.

Whether you have a shopping list or not, it’s a place to go when sleep is impossible and worries weigh heavy.

I have a six-pack of Sun Drop and a pack of shoe laces in my hands. It is embarrassing. I don’t need either item. I simply want to talk with Babe.

We met when my wife of 40 years -- and my sweetheart of 42 years -- lay dying at the local hospital. I had to escape the ICU waiting room or go crazy. So I wound up at Walmart, a magnet for troubled souls late at night. Perhaps I was meant to meet Babe in the express checkout lane. He’s been helping me ever since.

“The Lord won’t put more on you than you can carry,” he reminds me. “But you got to stand up. You get through on His strength, not yours. Listen for His voice. He talks to me, and he’s talking to you. But you got to get past feeling sorry and miserable to hear it.”

Babe speaks reverently of his late wife and helpmate of five decades. He believes she is standing near the Throne of God, an angel in Heaven like she was on Earth.

His eyes moisten and he adds, “She talks to me, too, in them quiet times. You know what I mean?”

I do. In those moments when something pricks a memory long forgotten, my departed wife speaks, reassures and tells me that love never becomes an empty husk. God won’t allow it.

Shiny gold buttons and customer service excellence badges adorn Babe’s vest, reflecting the twinkle in his eyes as he bags my purchase and hands me the plastic sack sporting the ubiquitous Walmart emblem.

“Bear up, my man. You and me, we are lucky. We had them rare marriages that make folks jealous. Now they pity us, think we’re sad and busted up inside. That’s wrong. Oh, I cry a bit now and then. I always will, and you will, too. But when The Lord took my wife’s hand and led her to Glory, He got a good woman. I know that. And she’s waiting for me there. It’s where I am going, yes sir!”

Babe’s benediction is accompanied by a brilliant smile and heartfelt handshake, not your usual experience in the checkout of a super center. He waves me through the exit door and turns to the next soul in need of his particular brand of ministry.

I don’t know Babe’s church affiliation, whether he’s Protestant, Catholic or what. But late at night when troubles mount and God sometimes feels distant, I can recommend the checkout lane where a wizened, elderly man in a blue vest waits to help.

■ Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama.