My Saturday afternoon took an odd turn because of a Christian women’s conference.
My friend Andy and I had coffee at a local Panera that happened to be in a strip mall across the street from the North Charleston Convention Center. That’s where author and speaker Beth Moore was holding a conference for thousands of Christian women. Estimates suggested that there were as many as 9,000 of them in attendance.
We decided to meet for coffee that morning, but first thought we’d meet elsewhere to avoid the traffic snarls that would ensue when the conference ended at noon. Then we decided to just meet a bit earlier so we’d be gone long before the chaos began.
But as we had our coffee, we realized that cars were being towed from the strip mall’s parking lot. A local traffic reporter likes to refer to big accidents as a “hot mess.” This had all of the potential to be a very hot mess.
Lesson #1: If your option is to pay $5 to park at the event you’re attending or take your chance on a “free” space on private property, pay the $5.
Apparently, some of the women attending the conference made a dreadful mistake: rather than pay $5 to park at the convention center, they chose to park in the strip mall parking lot for free.
This is generally never a good idea.
Compounding the problem was the fact that the property owner of the strip mall has several signs scattered around the lot warning motorists that it is a tow-away zone, but there were no signs immediately in the area where many of the women chose to park (which happened to be closest to the convention center itself). Many didn’t see a sign, so they assumed it was safe to park there. Others parked there with the intention of having lunch at one of the mall’s restaurants after the conference. The sign pictured in this post is not from this parking lot: his were all text that made it clear that it is a tow-away zone.
The law requires that such signs be placed by the primary entrance to the parking lot, and there were signs there, as well as signs that were scattered throughout the parking lot. There were few signs on the side closest to the center, but again, the property owner was within the law and about a dozen cars were towed. At least one of them was towed from a parking place that was right in front of one business’s front door. Other than displaying a sign in the windshield that read, “Please tow me,” I’m not sure how someone could have gotten their vehicles towed any more efficiently.
Before businesses even opened, the lot was mostly full. Customers who were actually attempting to patronize the businesses in the mall were having problems finding spaces. So the businesses predictably called their landlord screaming about the parking mess.
And the landlord predictably called the towing company to handle the situation.
Lesson #2: Never assume that a problem is automatically too big for you to be able to help someone in need.
Andy and I realized that these ladies were going to be walking back to the parking lot when the conference ended and they’d have no clue what happened to their cars. In many cases, the drivers were not from the immediate area; Andy noted that at least one of the cars he saw towed had a North Carolina license plate.
When you’re not from a place and you wind up stranded in it, that’s never a pleasant situation.
We approached one of the tow truck drivers and got business cards for the ladies so they’d at least know where to go to reclaim their cars. By this time, Andy had made enough inquiries of a couple of businesses that the property manager had already received calls and had arrived.
I really felt bad for the property owner: he was really caught in the middle of this. His customers are the tenants who pay him rent, not the shoppers who park in his lot. His hands were tied when the tenants started complaining about the lack of spaces. There wasn’t much else he could do. He definitely deserves credit for responding to Andy’s calls and showing up to face the people whose cars were towed. He could have just stayed home.
I called my church to see if anyone who is authorized to drive our church van might be available to shuttle the ladies to get their vehicles; of the three people listed on the insurance (and who have keys), none was in town at that moment. So I then placed a call to the local office of Enterprise Car Rental and explained the situation. I’ve done business with Enterprise many times in the past and have never had an issue with them. One of the managers of Enterprise, upon learning of the situation, said she could be there in 15 minutes with a 15-passenger van. She arrived in about 10. She came and transported a group of more than a dozen women to the towing company, and even stopped at an ATM so they could get cash. (Bonus lesson: Towing companies rarely accept anything other than cash: people can stop payments on checks or dispute charges on plastic.)
She did this without charge to anyone, to help make a bad situation a little better. I give major kudos to Enterprise for being willing to help in that manner, and I was sure to let the ladies know before the driver left with them that Enterprise was doing a good deed and should be appreciated for that.
After the van departed, one more group of ladies showed up and realized the bad news. Andy and I were actually about to leave when we noticed them. Andy called his wife, Jenny, who had attended the event herself and was still in the area running errands. She came by and gave this last group a ride to the towing company.
Neither Andy nor I were obligated to wait around to let anyone know what happened. One of the first questions I was asked when I would explain it is whether I was the owner of the lot, or the owner of one of the businesses, or whether I drove a tow truck. I’m sure Andy got the same reaction. Neither of us has a van or a convenient way to transport a large group of people. It just seemed to be the right thing to do to at least be there to help let them know what was happening until we could come up with a better idea.
We didn’t do it for “credit” with God. It was the right thing to do, helping someone in need if we can, showing God’s love to a neighbor.
Lesson #3: When someone is filled with God’s Spirit, it truly impacts how they behave.
It would be hard to criticize anyone for being upset to learn that their car had been towed away. Of course they’re going to be upset. These women were upset, too. But I was surprised by how few of them were as upset as I’d have expected.
Let me get the less favorable examples out of the way first. I certainly could report the events of the day without mentioning any negative, but there’s an important point to be made by showing all of the big picture.
One woman in particular was furious. She even remarked that she’d come from a Christian conference and “wasn’t feeling the joy” at that moment. That’s unfortunate: attending a Christian conference, going to church, even reading your Bible doesn’t “guarantee” you some splendid day in which your biggest decision is which rose to smell first. We feel God inside and then decide whether we let Him influence how we behave. (Hopefully we do.)
Another, while speaking to the property owner, attempted to drop names, saying she knew “Tom” at the Starbucks and wouldn’t be coming back. Also disappointing. I’m sure that even if she does know “Tom,” he wouldn’t have given her permission to park in a space for four hours while she was somewhere else, thus taking a place from a paying customer of his. And boycotting the mall? Really? This wasn’t an attack on women or on Christianity. It was about people who were in the wrong and who had to face the consequences of making a bad decision. We sometimes cause our own problems; when that happens, it’s our fault, no one else’s. Not even God’s.
Here’s where it really got interesting, though: most of the ladies seemed to approach the situation with an unexpected level of civility and stress. There was an overwhelming majority of them, in fact, who behaved with an amazing amount of grace. I’d say that about 80% of the women I encountered, though upset, were still in positive spirits about the mess.
One of them was in an unusual situation: she’d had breakfast before the conference at Panera, and was having lunch with a table of 20 women inside a different restaurant in the same mall. She already had a reservation at that restaurant before the conference, which was certainly provable, and the property owner agreed to have her car returned, surely at his own expense. She had two reasons to be angry: that her car had been towed and that she was a paying customer of the mall itself. But she was smiling and pleasant about the situation. And she added this:
“You know, we’ve spent the morning praising Jesus Christ and this will all work out okay. This is not going to discourage me at all.”
I sure hope all of us who are Christians would be able to say that about whatever we face. But this lady actually did say it. Christ was really alive in her heart, and you could see that in the way she dealt with people and the problem in front of her.
We need to see more examples like that these days. I’m grateful to her for delivering this third and unquestionably most important lesson of the day in a very real way: inviting God in and keeping Him there really does make a difference.