I wanted a hug today but there was nobody around. So I did something I have been contemplating for a while. Thinking that I can’t be the only person in town in need of a hug, I made a couple of stops in Greenville and shared hugs with some of my neighbors.
God provided a picture perfect day today. I went to the park and made this sign, “Free Hugs”. The letters were big and bold enough for anyone to read. Now, where do I go to love my neighbor? Facebook friends provided suggestions for me and I considered them all. One suggestion was one that’s been on my mind for a while, the local Wal-Mart. Actually, it’s been on my mind for nine months. The Friday before I started my new job, there was a shooting in front of this particular Wal-Mart. Four people were shot. The suspect also shot at Greenville police officers as they were trying to apprehend him. The officers weren’t hurt. The suspect was. Thankfully, all survived.
I found myself in front of that Wal-Mart today. With my sign in hand and comfortable shoes on my feet, I stood just to the side of one of the entrances. I didn’t say much and I only asked twice if people wanted a hug. The sign did most of the talking for me. For the first seven minutes, not one person took me up on my offer, even the three gentlemen that were sitting on the sidewalk right beside me. They were the ones I asked. They laughed at me and shook their heads. Hmmm, this might be tougher than I thought.
On minute seven, things started to change.
Two children hugged me first. Their parents did the same. Then throughout my 51 minutes many more followed suit. It was intriguing to watch people’s responses. Like I said, I saw laughter and smiles. People made eye contact and kept going. Others looked in the opposite direction. I heard a few “awe, that’s sweet” and a couple question the idea of “a free hug?” Two individuals asked questions I didn’t expect. One gentleman walked by and asked, “Free hugs? How does that work?” He didn’t stick around to find out. Then a woman wondered, “Who do you work for?” I simply said, “me,” and she kept going. I was not there to work. I was not there to make people do something they didn’t want to do. I simply wanted a hug.
Then I started getting hugs and not long after, my need turned into a want. I wanted to give hugs to those in need. It wasn’t about me anymore. It was about Greenville. I watched how people reacted. Based on some reactions, this was quite a strange experience to see in front of Wal-Mart. This project turned into a blessing. An employee said, “I sure needed this hug today.” Others responded the same when they hugged me back:
“Why are you doing this?”
“God bless you”
“Really? A free hug? I’ll take one!”
“You made my day.”
“You know, I’m sure somebody needs a hug.”
“A hug can make a big difference in someone’s day. Thank you.”
Four ECU students gave me a group hug and took a picture with me. Others skipped up to me and laughed before they too, took a turn. People stopped their cars in front of me, got out and gave me a hug. Others waved when they drove by. One grandmother stopped her shopping cart to give me a hug and her cart kept going. Her granddaughter exclaimed, “Grandma, your cart!” That one had us in tears laughing so hard.
This experience was great. Young and old. Black and white. Multicultural. Inter-faithful. Tall and short. Big and small. Men and women. Friends and solos. Somehow they all came around and you know what? So did those three men sitting on the sidewalk in the beginning. After they watched what was happening for about 30 minutes, they got up from their perch and gave me hugs. They were smiling about the whole thing. It was wonderful.
Then it all stopped, 51 minutes later.
Yes, you guessed it. I was told to leave. Two employees from the store, who I assumed were managers, came out and said I had to go. “You can’t solicit here. We know they are free, but you can’t solicit.” I could have interpreted those statements other ways, but I didn’t. I simply asked without anger or malice, “But I didn’t approach anyone. I thought I saw girl scouts out here a few weeks ago.” They explained that if I had applied and reserved the spot 30 days ahead of time, I could be out there. I didn’t apply. I barely gave it 30 hours of thought. I simply had a thought to go out and hug a neighbor.
I put my arms down to my side and walked away. Deep within me I wanted to be mad and say something like, “Well, you are denying people the chance to get a hug. That’s just rude.” But I didn’t because that’s not what happened. Instead I thought, “Hey, 37 neighbors got hugs in 51 minutes. How wonderful is that??!!”
Then I asked, where can I go now?
I found my way to Target and stood outside for about an hour. Do you know how tiring it is for an introvert to give two hours worth of hugs? The great thing is nobody told me to leave. Nobody turned me away. In fact, I got just as many hugs there, 44 to be exact. The funnier ones were the two ECU students who each gave me a hug and one said, “Can you run a tab? We’ll be back.” Sure enough, when the guys came out of Target, each one got another hug. Another group of ECU students gave a group hug and I was in the middle. One young teenager made her mom stop the car in front of me. She got out and yelled, “I want a hug!” Some folks smiled and continued on. Very few looked the other way. A woman thought I was one of those “Candid Camera” stunts and this little boy ran so fast to give me a hug, he almost knocked me down. And of course, there were many wonderfully gracious comments similar to the ones I shared above.
It was a great afternoon and one I didn’t anticipate. The feelings and responses were a bit overwhelming, yet so beautiful. There’s something here. I’m not sure what but I’ve got to find out.
One woman at Target said right before she gave me a hug, “I don’t know why you are
doing this but it’s awesome.” I’m not sure either. I simply wanted to love my neighbor as much as I love myself and on this day, I did both.