During my first year of college, I spent my Sunday evenings volunteering in a homeless shelter around the block from our LDS meetinghouse. Once, the night before a midterm in organic chemistry, Leroy arrived at the shelter drunk. He was drunk, he explained, because he had been assaulted and couldn’t bear the emotional stress of his vulnerability. Drinking had become a long-term, if utterly counterproductive, solution to stresses like the assault, a fact he admitted with some embarrassment. Leroy was anorexic-thin with wild white hair, like Einstein after a protracted hunger fast. His sinews bulged in the skin around every joint. There was a certain laxity in his bones it seemed; when he stood up, his profile looked like a crescent moon. Drunk, he didn’t make much sense, but I had known Leroy for several months, and in general he was a quiet, sweet man. Hesitant and deferential, he was always gentle. Leroy was from Michigan, as I recall, but had lived in Boston for several years. I assume the brutal Midwestern winters had prepared him for the unforgiving Northeastern winters, though life was quite hard even with that preparation.
Unfortunately, the rules about intoxication at the shelter were quite clear and strongly enforced. There was compassionate firmness in that policy, and I understood its wisdom in general terms, but I couldn’t bear the thought of Leroy on the streets again that night. Whatever the actual chances, his fear that he would not survive the night unsettled me.
So, on an impulse I identified as a spiritual prompting, I invited Leroy to stay with me that night in the dormitory. I had some bright green two-piece pajamas. He showered and changed into my pajamas; I slept in shorts and a T-shirt. By the time the entire production was finished it was after 2 am. He snored, and my floor was not terribly comfortable; I finally fell asleep around 4 am. Leroy couldn’t sleep past sunrise, a habit I suspect he had acquired in his long years of homelessness. We both arose shortly after 6 am. I gave him some clothes, took him to breakfast, and saw him on his way.
I arrived at the midterm later that morning exhausted but jubilant. Organic chemistry was difficult but pleasurable for me, though I had planned to awaken early Monday morning to study, as life had gotten a bit beyond me in terms of scheduling. I had not yet studied really for the test, and that bothered me some. That first year of college was the beginning of my theism—I had been converted to belief in God scant weeks before I left for college. Although I did not mistake letter for spirit in the law, I tended to honor both. It was thus my official policy that I would do no schoolwork on Sunday. I reserved the Sabbath for church, visiting with people who suffered, and volunteering at the homeless shelter. When the shelter began to pay me for my work, I just signed the whole check over to the LDS fast offering fund. What can I say? I was an intense undergraduate.
The combination of general procrastination, refusal to study on the Sabbath, and my time with Leroy meant that I was approaching the organic chemistry exam almost entirely unprepared. The test was difficult but within the realm of what I had expected until I reached the crux question. That question, as many others, involved understanding which bonds could break and what new configurations the bonds could twist themselves into after a break. In retrospect the problem involved three-dimensional thinking and the ability to imagine that a bond could twist around the main body of the molecule. As I confronted the problem, though, all I could see was my cluelessness. I was tired, a sleep-deprivation headache clouded my thinking, and I felt the seconds stretch into minutes as I stared at the page.
Not bothered by the impertinence of the request, I decided to pray for divine assistance. In the language of youthful but hopeful foolishness, I told God that I had done his work the night before and it was time for him to help me. It did not feel quite so blasphemous in my mind as it does now to put it in words; it is what I said.
I opened my eyes, looked at the molecule, and realized immediately where the bond had to move. I confirmed the transformation on my plastic molecule toys, a sort of Lincoln Logs for pre-medical students, and wrote the answer on my test.
That night I crashed for about ten hours. On Tuesday I discovered that I had achieved the high score on the test for the class. I felt that warm glow of satisfaction and vindication that came from a positive outcome from one’s actions.
At the time, this experience became one of many spiritual encounters that confirmed my faith in God. It was the assurance that God would be with me as I served him. I still think that is true; God was with me, and I was serving him. In the years since as I occasionally consider that experience, I think of other elements that also deserve to be emphasized.
My roommate, a wonderful and intelligent young man who loved cleanliness and who had survived some scathing encounters with Mormons in his home state, told me later that my slovenliness and tendency to invite people to stay with us at our dorm was a significant stressor for him. With an attention to order that bordered on OCD, a drunk homeless man in his bedroom was no cake walk for my roommate. It never occurred to me to ask for his permission, but if he had objected, I’m fairly certain I would have rebuked him and thought less of him. In the event, my roommate stayed with a friend across campus that night.
With the benefit of hindsight, I also confess that organic chemistry was not that hard for me, that I had a certain knack for taking tests, and that with better attention I could have learned more than the intro class for premeds had to offer. I doubt I would have the same story to tell if I had taken a more rigorous chemistry course my first year of college.
I am now a medical researcher, and my experience in my career affects the way I remember my youth. As a clinical investigator, I tend to consider the counterfactual as I ponder the meanings of events and their associations with other events. The “counterfactual” is a technical term that refers to the sequence of events that did not happen, as opposed to those which actually did. The question is, if I had not served Leroy would I not have scored high on my midterm? If I had not served Leroy, would he have indeed been killed that night (according to friends in the homeless community Leroy died a few years later, still in Boston)? I am not sure what I think of the counterfactuals with regard to my slumber party with Leroy.
My best sense, reflecting now two decades later, is that those questions and answers matter less than I have tended to think they do. I should have considered better the needs of my roommate, should have understood better the stress my decision imposed on him. But with that caveat, I should have proceeded to care for Leroy that night. What mattered was not whether Leroy was going to die but whether he thought he was and whether my kindnesses to him mattered. What mattered was not so much that I felt that God had helped me on my test, but that I had sought the presence of God even in something as banal as a college chemistry midterm. And I treasure those memories: the image of Leroy in my clean pajamas, eyes brimming with gratitude, that moment of clear seeing when the bond between two atoms broke and a new one was formed in my mind, the flood of gratitude I felt to God for allowing me to care for Leroy and still do well on my chemistry exam. For me, at least, those tender memories and that glorious presence stand at the heart of Providence.
 Some minor details have been changed, et cetera.