Oh I believe there are angels among us.
Sent down to us from somewhere up above.
They come to you and me in our darkest hours.
To show us how to live, to teach us how to give.

lyrics by Becky Hobbs, sung by the group Alabama.

In August of 2004, I was invited to conduct a workshop in Shenzhen, China. The morning of the workshop, while breakfasting in the restaurant of my hotel, my purse was stolen. In it was my money, cell phone, credit cards, driver’s license and most important, my passport and visa.

While the staff of the five-star hotel searched the hotel and restaurant premises, I stood in the restaurant, in shock, desperately trying to wake up from a traveler’s worst nightmare. My mind immediately began to create the list of what would have to be done to be able to leave two days later on my flight.It seemed almost impossible–particularly as I spoke exactly three words of Mandarin Chinese. Stories of Chinese bureaucracy and stereotypes of Asian indifference, along with a fear of disappointing my important clients curled through my brain. My stomach clinched, my anxiety escalated and I kept forgetting to breathe.

It was in the midst of my panic that the first of many angels, Western and Chinese, appeared. Almost immediately the concierge—a wonderful young man named Paul–was assigned to accompany me through the logistical and legalistic labyrinth that leaving the country would require. Next, one of my clients opened his wallet and handed me the equivalent of $200 so that I had spending money on me. As I returned to my room, the phone rang. It was the Hong Kong office of my own company, calling to see what I needed. Quickly money was arranged to pay for a new passport and documents, a colleague was dispatched to handle the workshop, and home numbers were offered to ensure that I never felt alone. In the days that ensued, my gratefulness and wonder grew. People responded to a stranger’s need willingly and without fanfare.

This experience has taught me a lot. For one thing, when I travel these days, I’ve developed an almost obsessive grip on my purse. More importantly, it’s convinced me that there are angels always among us. However, unlike many of the angels of the Old Testament and other sacred texts, these earth angels don’t show up surrounded by light or heralded by trumpets. These angels quietly come into our lives, leaving their gifts of kindness and consideration naturally and unobtrusively. In fact, one of the ways that they can be recognized is by the very nature of their interactions—humble and matter of fact, they offer help and assistance where needed, in times of darkness, departing before the spotlight finds them.

When my son was diagnosed with lymphoma, my family and I were again visited by angels. Surrounded by frightening sights, the unknown vocabulary of cancer, and the geography of our new circumstances, we reeled with the changes this diagnosis made in our lives. Yet, as in China, within the first moments of landing in this new country, angels quietly and resolutely began to appear, bearing their gifts.

One of my favorite angels was Allen—our pest exterminator for now 20 years. Shortly after Nick was diagnosed with cancer, Allen showed up for his monthly appointment. When he asked about the family, my husband told him about Nick. Allen put aside his work and sat down, talked to Vito, offered to come cook for us on his day off and then refused to take payment for that day’s work. At a time when things looked pretty bleak, the light of his caring and the pragmatic way in which he demonstrated it reminded us of the love and support that surrounds us.

It’s easy to overlook the presence of angels. We get caught up in our agendas, our miseries, our challenges. The acts of kindness are quickly noted and then forgotten as we return to the problems around us. We can even dismiss the angels, unaware of the gifts they have brought us. A few weeks into chemotherapy, miserable from the drugs and anxious thoughts, my son recounted a strange event that occurred while he was going to sleep. His eyes closed, he was startled by a bright light in his room. He looked around but couldn’t find the source of the light. Shutting his eyes again, he heard a fluttering of wings and then felt pressure on the top of his head, as if someone had touched him there. Listening to his story, I told him that it sounded to me as if he had been visited by an angel and asked what he had done in response to all of the strangeness. Ever the pragmatist, Nick admitted that he had asked “it” to go away, he was trying to sleep.

I’m pretty sure that angels have a sense of humor about 16-year-old boys but it makes me think. How many times do we turn away angels in our lives because we’re focused on our own agenda, caught up in our own misery or problems? Do we choose to stay curled up in our challenges and negative world view, rather than see the acts of kindness around us? What do we go looking for during our own crises? The darkness or the light?

I believe that each crisis in our lives is an opportunity to grow and to connect with others. It’s not always easy to do so, especially in those crises that seem to suck out our energy, leaving us fearful and anxious in the night. Yet it is during those times that we are most encircled by angels, visible if we will but look for them. Their presence can fill us with hope, remind us of the love that is always around us, and bring light to dark situations. We just have to open our eyes and our hearts to see them.