The Advent Season of 2013 was a special time of prayer and peace for me this year. After a wonderful retreat experience in November, with a well timed theme of Hope, I was better prepared for a genuine Christmas experience than I had been in many years. As part of my Advent preparation, I discerned it was high time for me to put my prayers, hopes and pious Face Book observations into real action. So, in the weeks leading up to Christmas I spent some time volunteering at a couple charities that minister to the homeless, and the nearly-homeless. I know a lot of folks were thinking the same way. As a matter of fact, one of the organizations I spent some time with, was completely booked with volunteers for feeding their guests, for Christmas dinner. What a wonderful blessing that was.
Oh what a Saint I am! And that’s actually a problem I have with sharing this part of my story, because it tends to sound like my arms must be getting pretty tired from patting myself on the back. But, I can’t tell you the rest of the story, without this part. So, please bear with me, because even if it is cliché, it is true: I am the one receiving the blessings, and joy, in doing these things. Which is weird, because, my culture, my society, my world tells me over and over: buy, take, relax, have fun, drink, eat and be merry; do your own thing, and be your own man, this is especially the world’s message during the Christmas Season! But in just a few days working with some wonderful organizations, and amazing individuals I experienced a truer joy of the Christmas Season than I had in a long time. These were just a few of the stories.
I spoke with a 60-ish year old leg amputee. She was living in a small modest apartment with her cat -companion of 17 years. Because of some extra expenses of moving to the new place recently, and in order to keep her cat, she was running low on funds. It was ten days before Christmas and all she wanted was some help with food. She told me she had been living pretty much on Ramen Noodles for the past several weeks. As we talked she told me all about her cat and how grateful she was for the wonderful gentleman from a government agency who came to assist her in some cooking, cleaning, and “emptying her potty chair.” As I listened, I felt all of my issues melt away into thin air.
I collected some information and then told her I’d check to see what we could do for her. When I called her back about an hour later, I let her know a Kroger gift card was available. I couldn’t help but quietly cry, when she told me over and over how much she appreciated it –and me; “what a blessing it was,” she said, how she could finally get some real meals …”without Ramen Noodles,” she added with a laugh through her tears. I’m pretty sure she could’ve talked for the rest of the day, because other than her cat, and the man from Tenncare, I don’t think she had a lot of company; but I had other folks to call.
Another call was to a woman who had been referred to the agency by someone else. She was in her early 30’s and she and her husband were having a tough time of it. She, her husband and their 7 children had been put up in an economy motel for a few weeks by a kind soul, who wanted to help keep their family off the streets at least through Christmas. The boys and girls ranged from 14 years old, to 2 year old twin girls. Oddly, the mom didn’t ask for any gifts for the kids, just some help with food. She told me the motel room had a microwave and a mini-fridge. The organization was able to get them a Kroger card as well –another generous donation from an anonymous someone. But, the kids got some Christmas gifts too, even though she never asked for them. Through this organization’s massive toy and gift drive, and the Angel-Saint who runs the program, age appropriate boy and girl toys were gathered together, sorted and bagged by a small army of volunteers on a busy pre-Christmas season Saturday; and I’m happy to say Santa did make a stop at a Motel 6 somewhere in our city by Christmas, delivering gifts to seven children, and their profusely thankful mom and dad.
I also spent some time, helping feed homeless men; many of whom are fighting addictions, bad decisions along the way, tough luck, you name it. I got to join them in prayer before their lunch, and then serve them meals prepared and paid for by volunteers and other dedicated folks. Some of the men were clear eyed, freshly showered and not much different looking than me. They spoke to me about the Cowboy’s dreadful game the night before. They laughed and joked about Tony Romo, (this was before the news of his season-ending back issue…) and we talked about the fine weather we were having –a nice break from the previous week’s bitter cold, something especially pertinent to those living on the streets. But, many other men were distant. They stared vacantly off into some other other-dimension. One older man looked like he’d been in a pretty bad fight the night before, or maybe even that morning. He had fresh cuts and scrapes all over his face. His long greasy hair hung limp down the sides of his battered head; his beard gnarled and uneven. He reminded me of Jesus during his trial and torture, and I had a renewed sense of service to this unknown man. He stared down through an empty table before him, clutching his belongings between his worn dirty shoes. When I served him his tray of food, I tried to make eye contact, looking past his wounded face –I didn’t know what to say about his appearance, so I just said, “Merry Christmas.” He nodded back to me, and I think I could see a glimmer of a smile in his weary eyes.
If those men were the faces, the eyes, the frowns and smiles of Christ, -the legs, feet, hands and arms of Christ, were in the volunteers I had the pleasure of working along side of. Over the course of a few days, some had made sandwiches, cooked hearty soups, bagged up chips, cookies, fried chicken, and on and on. And then in their Christ-like humility, they stepped out of the kitchen and served these homeless, drifting, lost souls.
Some of the volunteers wore jackets with logos of country clubs or fashion designers. Seeing these volunteers from the other side of town, serving the down-and-out, reminded me so clearly of Jesus’ words: “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” -Luke 14: 12-14. For these volunteers, there probably wasn’t much chance of being invited back to a fancy dinner by the 150 or so men gathered around this inner-city chapel/ dining hall.
Of course there are other stories. And my few weeks of service cannot compare with the years and years of dedication most of the people I came in contact with have been doing. But the point of writing this down is not about what I did, or haven’t done: it’s about what I received.
- I’m a runner and ever since then, I’ve run with the renewed appreciation of having 2 good legs.
- I’ve prepared evening meals for my wife and myself, not with dread or drudgery, but with a sense of gratitude that I am able to do this in my own kitchen, with nearly any food ingredient I need, from a full sized refrigerator, on a real stove, with an array of pots and pans and cooking utensils. I use real plates and when I am done, I relish running hot and cold water, my sink and dishwasher to clean up.
- Saying Grace before meals, takes on a whole new and real meaning. Thank you Lord for this food …and I really, really mean it! There are so many people who don’t have the opportunity to say this simple prayer, because they don’t have anything to eat.
- I rarely pick up something from the fast food restaurant on any corner of town any more. It seems now a luxury that I shouldn’t indulge in. I can prepare a meal many times more nutritious and filling, and at a fraction of the cost of fast food. Twenty dollars for a couple sandwiches, sides and large drinks seems so wasteful now, especially when I think of someone living on Ramen noodles.
- I am thankful that I live in a safe community, in a warm house. I have a clean bed, in a quiet room to lay down my head at the end of the day. I have privacy. I have no fear of violence being done to me, and I have no fear of someone taking my possessions if I don’t hold on to them tightly every moment of the day.
- As a matter of fact, I have a new sense of needing no new possessions whatsoever. So much so, I thought long and hard about a Christmas gift for myself, and I couldn’t think of one single thing. So, I asked my family in lieu of getting me something, that we all make a donation to a charity. Again with the saint thing, I know. But, I mention this to point out the incredibly awesome people in my life. We were able to make enough donations to feed and provide for about 100 hungry souls on Christmas day. I enjoyed my Holiday gatherings and meals so much more knowing this was being done just a few miles away, in the heart of the city. I honestly cannot think of a better gift than that. For me, it’s a twofold gift: my family who gave in the best spirit of giving, and those who needed a little extra help, getting it.
I am continuing to try and stay active in volunteer opportunities, especially with the least among us. I pray my attitudes and actions will continue on into this New Year. My final thought on this for now: I have found spending time with them, has made me feel more like it’s spending time with us.