the story of Donald, me & a little diversity

My second or third post ever was about a friend of mine named Donald. I was such an inexperienced (but witty) blogger at the time; thanks to those of you who’ve stuck with me these past 15+ years!

But Donald is someone I think about often and still, even this many years later. What an impression he made.

Let me briefly paint the picture of when first we met…

I was a newly promoted HR director, only 24/25. You know that age… the one where it’s exciting because you’re professionally embarking on a new career; you’re fairly confident you’re going to be really good at what you finally get to do; and yet, you’re not experienced enough to know what you don’t actually know as of yet. 

Donald strolled into my office late one midweek afternoon. Shy from the immediate start, this short, maybe 50 year old, African-American man with a little white fuzz above each ear asked to grab an application, seeking employment from our hotel. It was our policy to fill out applications on-site, but when I shared that with this then stranger, he awkwardly yet politely apologized and timidly uttered that he would try to come back another time.

Something stirred inside of me. I suppose I felt drawn to that awkward politeness in some way. It was clear he had no intention of returning, and so I did something in all my years of HR work, I had never done nor likely will do again. I got up from behind my desk, in my suit, rolled up my sleeves, and said, “Let’s do this together.” He looked at me a little hesitantly, stunned no doubt, not sure what to make of me nor my offer. So I sat down at a table and motioned for him to take an adjacent seat. 

It was clearly a toilsome task for Donald. We walked through the application line-by-line, and while he had to be the one to put the pen to the paper, I spent over an hour coaching him, ensuring he understood what information was being solicited. Something soberly stirred further as I watched him slowly misspell his own name.

Moved by the humility and gentleness of a man who seemed not to have had a lot of affirmation in his life — maybe, also, one who all too easily falls through the cracks in our culture — arguably where that buzz word “marginalized” fits in — I called in a favor… how can we help him? … how can we sincerely encourage? … can we offer him a job?

I called one of the department managers to join me in making a difference, asking if he was free, willing to interview an applicant on the spot. Favor granted, connection made, and Donald was offered an opportunity to work in the kitchen, cleaning, washing, even overseeing the daily employee lunch. Donald was absolutely, unquestionably thrilled. 

Thus began my sweet relationship with this beautiful, sensitive, articulate man. 

No, Donald wasn’t articulate like most of us may stereotypically think of in said description. He didn’t wax anything poetic or seemingly even phonetically pleasing. But he was a good communicator. When he walked down the hall to proudly set up the employee lunchroom each day, he had something to say to all, usually accompanied by a warm, welcoming smile. I would often hear him gleefully render a little James Brown along the way — although he’d razz me for not knowing any of the words. I would hear him laugh so freely, like an innocent schoolboy. I’d also hear him cry some days, when onlookers cruelly thought it was ok to tease him for who he was… or who he was not.

We talked often, typically daily. Our encouragement was indeed mutual. He’d routinely say, “Miss Ann, you not like other people. You not like them. You different.” I wasn’t always sure what he saw in me, but it was genuine; our friendship was dear. He would sweetly, humbly share, “God made you special, Miss Ann.”

I suppose from far away, one might just see Donald as an adult with special needs and significant cognitive impairment. I didn’t see it that way. In fact, my time with Donald was probably key to my foundational learning that wisdom and intelligence are not the same thing. Donald wouldn’t have fared well on any administered IQ test, but he was indeed a deeply wise man. He saw things in others that not everyone could see. He had a servant’s heart and a solid work ethic. He believed in honoring all others. His discernment was also on target, too often painfully aware of those who felt justified in their lack of honor.

Some days we’d talk about that. It was a hard conversation. He didn’t understand how people could be so cruel. He didn’t know why they’d even want to hurt another. I didn’t either. We’re all created in the image of God. Donald knew that; that should mean something. It should prompt consistent kindness in how we treat all others, especially in our diversity.

A year or so thereafter, I was again promoted to a new location — hopefully now a little more experienced and aware of what I didn’t know as of yet. But leaving Donald was one of the things that grieved me painfully most. He and I would cry a lot that day. I would never see my friend again.

Donald was different than me in so many ways. But only on the outside. He taught me how to see. He taught me how to honor. And he taught me that the differences did not matter to those who are wise.

God indeed made you special, Mr. Donald.