There are pivotal moments in every faith-walk that can change the path of a believer.
Tom Kaden had one about 11 years ago while he was stranded in the middle of nowhere in the mountains of West Virginia the night before Christmas Eve.
His Jeep Cherokee developed a flat tire around 11:30 p.m., and the New Jersey native faced an awful truth — the used vehicle had a spare tire but a broken jack.
“We had not seen a car for about an hour,” recalled Kaden, 36, of Mount Holly Springs. “There were no lights. It was so dark.”
Pitch black, to be precise, with a seasonal mix of precipitation and temperatures in the 30s. Kaden had no choice but to consider his scant options with his wife in the passenger seat. She was three to four months pregnant at the time.
He could chance leaving her behind and make for a house off in the distance, or he could try to walk the 15 miles to the next exit hoping to find some help.
Kaden stayed put, resigned to the fact that eventually the gas would run out, the heat would go off and the cold would creep in. With no cellphone service, the situation looked bleak.
That was when Kaden saw the light.
It was not a flash of insight or a divine calling card, but the emergency lights of a police cruiser pulling up behind his vehicle. Officer Anderson may have been drawn in by the four-way flashers.
What followed was a version of the good Samaritan story, but with an air of mystery. There was nobody by the name of “Officer Anderson” on the police roster when Kaden called the station the day after Christmas to offer up his thanks.
Kaden’s full story can be found in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: A Book of Christmas Miracles” available for purchase in bookstores and online. The book is an anthology of 101 previously published true stories that showcase examples of divine intervention, holiday angels, answered prayers, forgiveness, gratitude, random acts of kindness, the joy of giving and family reunions.
“A Book of Christmas Miracles” is one of four “Chicken Soup” titles selected to be fundraisers for charities in 2017. Royalties from the book will go to the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots program, which provides holiday gifts to children who might not otherwise receive any.
For Kaden, the story “Stranded” was the first in his writing career. As the founder and chief executive officer of the “Someone to Tell It To” ministry in Harrisburg, Kaden has published two books, each with the theme of reaching out to people in times of deepest need and showing them compassion.
“I’ve always kept him in the back of my mind,” Kaden said of Officer Anderson. “He went way beyond the call of duty driving us out of his jurisdiction and setting us up with a mechanic.”
The example set by the mystery police officer proved an inspiration for Kaden who, in December 2006, was still trying to define his calling during his first year as a graduate student at the Asbury Theological Seminary in Willmore, Kentucky.
That June, Kaden had married Sarah Carr of North Middleton Township who he met in 2005 while he was working as a youth minister intern at the Carlisle Evangelical Free Church in South Middleton Township.
Kaden graduated from Messiah College in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in public relations and a minor in business. His wife earned a nursing degree from Bloomsburg University. They met in an adult Bible study group.
The two were on their way from Kentucky to the Carlisle area the night before Christmas Eve 2006 when the Jeep Cherokee broke down in West Virginia on a lonely stretch of Interstate 79.
The compassion the officer showed at a time of deepest need stayed with Kaden and influenced him to develop a ministry with his friend and fellow clergyman Michael Gingerich.
“The heart of our ministry is to reach out with compassion to those who need to be heard and whose stories need to be told,” Kaden said. “We accompany people who are carrying a heavy burden in life. We want to work to combat this epidemic of loneliness and disconnection.”
Officer Anderson was not the only person to influence Kaden and the direction of his faith-walk. While a student at Messiah College, Kaden landed a paid internship position with a Wall Street public relations firm during the summer between his sophomore and junior years.
He only lasted a couple weeks on the job. While the pay was good, the stress level was high and the hours were long and demanding. But there was something deeper at work, and it took a chance encounter with a female supervisor in an elevator to point it out.
“She looked me in the eye and asked ‘Why are you here?’” Kaden said. “I answered ‘I don’t know.’” Frustrated and flustered, Kaden broke down in tears but later took comfort in her blunt approach.
“She saw something in me that I was not seeing in myself,” Kaden said. “She was a follower of Jesus.”
Starting his junior year, Kaden put a greater emphasis on taking as many courses as possible in Biblical studies. That prepared him for the next stage in his calling as a minister: graduate work at the Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky.