By Joel Lai

“Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”

J.R.R Tolkien (The Hobbit)
Grace in Chicago
The writer, Joel Lai, shucking oysters on the pier in Seattle before heading to Chicago.

It was past 5.20 a.m. on Feb. 23.  Twenty hours earlier, we left Vancouver, Canada, by bus for Seattle. We spent the rest of the day there at the airport before catching our flight to Chicago in the evening. After breezing through the formalities at the Chicago airport, we now trudged our way to the “L” – a subway line that linked the airport to the heart of the city.

Sitting at a window seat in the wood-panelled train-carriage, I glanced over a paper map of Chicago on my lap. “14 stops from here to Grand,” I mumbled. It had been eight hours since our last meal and we were famished.

After an uneventful 45 minutes, we arrived at Grand. At the concourse, turnstiles blocked the two separate exits that led to the street level. The choice was simple – east or west. We quickly realised that the map was insufficient and noticed the strangely empty concourse hall.

“How can I help you both?”, a smartly-dressed staff shouted out to us as she emerged from what we had thought was an unattended security booth. We scurried over and handed her a printed sheet bearing our hotel’s address.

She scrunched her eyes in focus, laughed and pointed us to the flight of steps where we had come from moments ago.

It then became clear to us that neither east nor west would have been right. Downtown Chicago had not one, but two stations named “Grand”! They were two stations apart, on entirely different lines.

“Common mistake tourists make”, she chuckled empathetically.

We thanked her for her “timely” intervention and arrived at the other Grand station soon after.

Thus was our first meeting with Grace.

Futile quest

We arrived at our hotel shortly after 8.00 a.m., much earlier than the designated check-in time of 3.00 p.m. As we sipped our complimentary cup of tea and shed our 20kg luggage after our exhausting lengthy journey, we were in unspeakably good spirits.

Revived from the little rest, we walked to Navy pier, situated on the banks of Lake Michigan, where we yearned for a warm, hearty meal overlooking a stunning vista of the lake. On arriving there however, we found it largely deserted. The lake we found was shrouded in fog and our food options were limited to McDonald’s and a few smaller eateries. A shrouded lake and limited food options led us to end our sojourn there prematurely and no sooner than we had arrived, we took a bus to our next destination – the Museum of Science, Industry and Technology.

We disembarked 45 minutes later, shortly before noon. Unbeknownst to us, the museum complex (the largest of its kind in the western hemisphere) was situated in a largely residential neighbourhood at the city’s fringes. Under normal circumstances, paying the USD$21 admission fee to the museum would have been a no-brainer but we were desperately looking for food.

With heavy hearts, Mum and I decided to skip the museum and head back to the city centre to resume our quest for food. One misfortune followed another and despite mustering all our remaining energy to return to the bus stop, we arrived one moment too late to see the bus rolling away.

It was now close to 1.00 p.m. and 16 hours since our last meal!

Grace in Chicago
When it came down to stomach or stunning museum, the writer and his pharmacist mother, Swie Peng, chose to quell their gnawing hunger pangs. With heavy hearts they turned away from the Museum of Science, Industry and technology to seek food elsewhere, but not before taking some shots for the album.

Changing tides

Another bus arrived 20 minutes later.

Retracing our short-lived journey in the opposite direction, we stumbled into more familiar and friendly surroundings just after 2.00 p.m.

Thankfully, we ended up in Chicago’s renowned “Loop” district, where we encountered Grace a second time.

While scanning the surroundings for food, we spotted an establishment that stood out for the sheer number of people patronising it.

Knowing Mum’s disinclination towards Mexican food, I dismissed the idea of eating there. She volunteered we give the place a try, I grabbed the opportunity and we made our way to the start of the queue of at least 15 people long.

Our turn came in a matter of minutes. And then I saw a sign previously hidden from our sight. It read: “Payment by card only. No cash accepted on premises from Monday.”

Dismayed, we removed ourselves from the queue.

Grace in Chicago
Swie Peng in front of the shop where they met Grace.

“What can I get you guys?” a voice from behind the counter beckoned us as we were moving off. He confirmed cash was not accepted, apologised and added, “But don’t worry man, we’ve got you guys covered this time.”

Relieved, we interpreted his statement thus: “We’ll make an exception for you guys and accept cash.”

He proceeded to take our orders. “Would you like cheese on that?”… “Toasted?”

Interspersed with the usual questions, he explained apologetically, “We stopped accepting cash for security reasons.”

We had little time to digest that statement before we were quickly ushered down the line to the next station. “Which sauce?” “Rice or beans?” “Minced beef or slices?” We struggled to keep up with the bullet-speed process.

Grace in Chicago
The meal that Grace gave.

Grace at its finest

At the payment counter, Mum reflexively handed a 100-dollar bill over to the cashier, who reiterated, “We don’t accept cash ma’am, debit or credit cards only.”

Utterly perplexed, Mum repeated the words of her colleague that “they’ve got us covered” and added for good measure that we were tourists.

The cashier replied, “Ahh… I understand. Not to worry then guys.”

Mum instinctively returned the 100-dollar bill to the cashier, who again declined her money.

“How now?” we asked sheepishly.

Grinning, the cashier handed us a brown paper bag and said, “Enjoy your meal, guys. It’s on the house today.”

Nothing did we offer them in return but our heartfelt gratitude; indeed, no words sufficed.

Gratitude and faith

Such is Grace – the unmerited favour given to one completely undeserving of it. Having died for our sins, Jesus embodies God’s abundant grace to us.

“There are no free lunches in this world”, so the saying goes. Here, I must disagree as Jesus’ sacrifice, besides my account above, is the strongest evidence that shows free lunches do exist in this world.

“Free lunches” exist because a good, benevolent and gracious God steers the wheels of this world.

We often attribute to chance or fortune, many of the good things that unfold in our lives, but often, they are the works of our gracious God and it is vital that we recognise them.

Acts of love and kindness, however small and insignificant, are priceless to the recipients. At 3.30 p.m. on February 23, 2018, 18 hours after our last meal and 36 hours after our last bath, we met Grace and were overwhelmed.

Joel Lai is a fresh medical graduate and currently awaiting housemanship posting. His interests include travelling, reading and acquiring new skills and knowledge.  

Asian Beacon: Jul – Sep 2018 (Vol 50 #3, p36-37)

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