Last Tuesday I drove to Richmond to visit district offices of my two U. S. Senators. (Conveniently, their offices are in the same downtown building, three floors apart.) Frankly, I was on a scouting mission for several groups in my area that want to participate more fully in our country’s democracy. My project was to meet the staffers, tell them the hopes of some of their constituents, and let them know that we are paying attention to our Senators’ work in Congress

Knowing the plan, at church on the preceding Sunday, a friend gave me a large bag of about forty Valentines. She had hand-fashioned them, cutting them from fabric, backing them with stiff paper, and embellishing each with a small center heart and a curlicue of gold ribbon. My instructions were to give them away to people I met in Richmond.

I did, mostly to the staffers—attractive, bright, engaged young people. They seemed surprised but also delighted to receive a small gesture of appreciation for what they do. Even though I left them with extras so they could give some away themselves, I still had Valentines left over.

And so, when I reached the ground floor of the office building, I gave one to a man getting on the elevator I was getting off. “Would you like a Valentine?” I asked, and he took it and smiled his thanks as the elevator doors closed. I gave one to woman sitting in the solarium reading a newspaper. “Would you like a Valentine?” She looked up, smiled, and held out her hand. “Thank you,” she said. I did the same with the woman at the lobby’s front desk. And again, out on Main Street as I walked two blocks to my car: “Would you like a Valentine?” I said, offering one to whichever stranger I passed next. Over and over I did this: “Would you like a Valentine?” Over and over, what I got in return was a surprised look, a smile, an open hand—and a hearty “Thank you.”

Only one person refused, a white man wearing a business suit, and he did so politely. “No, thanks,” he said. He might have thought there was some string attached. But the others—whether man or woman, thirty-something or sixty-something, outfitted for office or construction work, white like me or with skin of a different tone—they all accepted Valentines. Like the young staffers up on the sixth and ninth floors, they seemed surprised—but also genuinely pleased. “A Valentine? For me? Really? Yes! Thank you!”

Looked at one way, these exchanges were little, superficial nothings. Of course, I’d like to think that some propped the Valentines on their desks or clipped them to the dashboards of their trucks and felt their hearts a bit warmed. Perhaps some passed them on to co-workers or neighbors or took them home to a spouse or child. In any event, the Valentines would change nothing of consequence in their lives.

Viewed from my perspective, however, there was a brief but rich intimacy in each encounter. Complete strangers dropped their guard for a brief moment. It was pure grace to watch as busy, harried, distracted, workaday faces soften into astonished, grateful smiles. Seen that way, I think the Valentines were prayers.

Angier Brock