Our first trip together across the Atlantic was in September 2005, a few short weeks after Hurricane Katrina grabbed the world’s attention. We started in Atlanta and had a rough idea that we were going to drive north-east ultimately towards Washington DC. The first two days of our road trip proved more surprising than we could ever have imagined!
It began with a tour around a reconstructed Cherokee Indian village in Oconaluftee, North Carolina, on the border of the Smoky Mountains. Two older ladies were with us on the tour and we struck up a conversation at the end of it (having been speaking in Gaelic all the way round for fear of being spoken to!). It turns out that they were Christians who were incredibly considerate towards us.
Anyway, long story short, they called a friend of theirs in Roanoke, Virginia, told her they had met a couple of Scottish visitors and it would be great if she could give us a bed for a night or two. When I say ‘told’, what I really mean is they left a message on her answering machine with a heads-up that she would receive a phone call the next day! Oh dear!
Twenty-four hours later, I called the number I’d been given and spoke to Judy (in the picture with a much younger version of me) and apologetically told her who I was. I thanked her for her kindness (even though her pals had landed her in it!), told her that we would find a motel somewhere and expected that to be that. But I hadn’t counted on Southern hospitality. Not a chance would Judy hear of us staying anywhere else. So, she gave directions to her home, we followed them (with a wrong turn or two thrown in) and eventually arrived to be greeted by a sign saying ‘Ian, you’ve arrived’ hanging from the mailbox.
Now, a bit of context. Judy had been widowed a few years and was willing to welcome two people she’d never met into her home. It was dark when we arrived, she was on her own, yet she welcomed us like long-lost friends. This wasn’t just Southern hospitality in action, it was Christian hospitality in action too.
So, we went into the house and sat down for a cup of tea and had a conversation that went something like this:
Judy: ‘Now, I know you’re from Scotland, but which part?
Us: ‘We’re from the far north-west.’
Judy: ‘Is that anywhere near Isle of Lewis?’
Us (sputtering and stammering): ‘we’re from the Isle of Lewis!’
Judy: ‘No way! That’s one of my favourite places!’
This was ridiculous! Somehow we had stumbled into the home of someone in Virginia who knew and had some experience of our own wee island home. Talk about providence.
Judy then told us to go through the house to a bedroom, which we duly did; and what met us there brought about even more head-shaking: three photos, one of the Callanish Stones, one of the Gearrannan Blackhouses and one of a Toffee Bò, Surreal, or what?!
When we returned to our conversation, Judy told us how she had come to be in Lewis. Her daughter was a student in the Faith Mission College in Edinburgh and wanted to visit Lewis, land of the revivals under the ministry of Duncan Campbell. When her mother was in Scotland visiting her, they both decided to make the journey north. Whilst there, Judy came across a big old bible in a charity shop and bought it. The following Christmas, she gave it to her daughter as a gift.
Some time after that, a cousin of Judy’s was visiting Judy’s daughter and they showed him this bible. The man flicked through it and came across a loose sheet of paper with a list of names, clearly a list of people who had owned the bible. ‘That’s funny’, he said, ‘one of the surnames here was in Judy’s family at some point.’ Apparently a branch of Judy’s family was driven out of France by the Huguenots. Anyway, the cousin had an interest in genealogy and took the list away with him, out of interest.
He got in touch with Judy a while after this and told her he was going to tell her something she wouldn’t believe. He had done some research, and it turned out that the bible which Judy had bought in Stornoway had once belonged to a great-great-great (six or seven generations back) grandfather of Judy’s. Wow! It’s incredible to think that what was once a family bible found its way back into the family in such an unlikely place and in unlikely circumstances. Again, amazing providence.
Judy was a wonderful host to us for our weekend in Roanoke, a shining example of Christian care, charity and passion. We went to church with her on the Sunday and we were introduced as her new friends ‘from Isle of Lewis’. ‘Oh,’ her friend exclaimed, ‘the bible place!’
This is one of my favourite stories from all our travels, one I’ve told many times and will probably continue to tell. It was a great privilege and blessing to meet Judy’s friends and ultimately to meet and be so well looked after by Judy. I’m so thankful for her kindness and for the fact that she once visited our island and found it to be the source of such a blessing to her. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Lewis really was ‘the bible place’ in our day?