I planned to stay a week longer than my team and go to Bulgaria by train. A couple on the team asked to join me and so we went to Plovdiv, Bulgaria. The train took around ten hours. And it was adventurous, quirky, and indisputably lovely. While on the train I talked to God about wanting to know more Middle Easterners, especially ones I could remain connected with back in the states. I pondered my backpacking trip throughout Europe after college and how I had not kept in touch with anyone I’d met in the hostels. I began to think it would be splendid to meet a new friend in the hostel in Plovdiv. As is usually the case, Jesus and I were on parallel trains of thought.
After our middle of the night screeching visa stop – in which we had to exit the train and get in line outside a metal fence surrounding a military barracks (I had never felt more like a Soviet living behind the Iron Curtain (large furry hat to keep the heat in, please?)) – we arrived in Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria with a population of about 400,000. And we headed to the hostel we reserved online. Upon entering the hostel we were taken on a tour of the place. The young woman directing us led us into the communal restroom: toilets in stalls, showers in stalls, and a plastic curtain separating the toilet area from the showers and sinks. We stood in the entrance area and she ripped back the curtain – a man with merely a hostel-issued white towel wrapped around his waist spun toward us, razor in hand and shaving cream on half of his face, like an unfinished cake. His eyes locked with mine. I gasped. He was nominally embarrassed, and primarily very surprised. And he was dark-skinned, like Middle Eastern dark-skinned. I felt like I prayed him into existence! I asked God for a Middle Eastern friend at this hostel, and there he was! He had not spoken yet either so, I didn’t know where in the Middle East he was from.
Later my friends went to find an ATM and I went back to our room. There was that man seated on what must have been his bed! (It was a co-ed room with about 7 bunk beds.) He looked up at me silently. I assumed he didn’t speak English so I just said, “Hi” and smiled back. He gathered his things and left. The next morning I awoke before the others and so did my non-friend friend. I smiled. He smiled back. I got my Bible from underneath my bed and began to drink it.
It wasn’t until my friends got up and went out to shower and have breakfast that he spoke, “What is that book underneath your bed?” It was perfect English with a very American accent! I laughed internally. (Could it be that not only was this guy Middle-Eastern, but American? It was precisely what I asked God for!) I explained it was my Bible and explained a bit about different versions. Then I handed him my Bible so he could look at it for himself. And then he asked where I was from. I explained that I was from California, but living near Boston. “Me too!” he exclaimed, “I’m from near San Francisco, but right now I am in graduate school in Cambridge!” “What?!” I said, “I am in seminary thirty minutes north of Boston!” He laughed, “I go to Harvard’s JFK School of Government!” We laughed, stunned. He mentioned his family was Iranian-American and he went on to explain how he just finished some kind of internship in Serbia. He spent so many months overseas he was really thinking about what it would be like to live overseas long-term. I chuckled, “Yeah, I’m going through that very same process. I just spent seven weeks in Turkey and I expect to spend years of my life living overseas.” We talked for a little while, never exchanging names and ended with, “Well, I’ll see you some time later today or tomorrow.” Oddly, we didn’t – see each other, that is. I left Bulgaria the following day perplexed that I did not know his name. Then I realized it was a perfect opportunity for God to amaze me by causing me to run into him somewhere in America.
When I returned to America I began to pray almost every time I entered Boston: “God, cause me to run into that guy somewhere. I bless Him with encounters right now – that he would know you.” That fall I took a class at Harvard Divinity School, subsequently I was in Boston/Cambridge weekly. And since it was a 45 minute journey each way, I would find a coffee shop after class and get some schoolwork done. One ordinary afternoon after class I headed over to one of my favorite cafes: 1369 Coffeehouse in Inman Square. There I was, fully student-ized: my Hebrew textbook and workbook wide-open, my sharpened pencil hard-at-work, creating the architecture of Hebrew words, characters nailed up like support beams, verb conjugations spackled in place. I looked up at one point and noticed a starkly familiar man diagonal from me. I couldn’t place him. “Holy Spirit, where do I know this guy from?” I thought. I dropped the Hebrew hammer on my foot: Bulgaria. I got up and put myself in the empty seat at his table. I spoke one word, “Bulgaria.” He stared at me. Then the hammer hit him. “Oh my gosh!!!! Yeah! How are you?!” Soon our sentences rushed on top of each other like water over river rocks. Connor. Dawn. Our names finally came up and with that our cel phone numbers. We talked for a couple hours, but he was borrowing a book from the library with a three hour limit so, he had to get back to return it, but, “We should hang out sometime.” So, we did. He joined some friends and I for a night out in Cambridge weeks later and one day while I was in Boston I swung by a Starbucks where he was studying. The last time I saw him he was planning to move back to California and the next time I texted him, it was no longer his number. He must have moved and changed it. And that was that. Hopefully, we’ll again run into each other somewhere in the world sometime. I love divine appointments.