Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"Hitting the Jackpot: a Christmas Story of 2006"


This true story was written a few days after a service project that was performed by faculty and students of the school at which I work. Although the event occurred two years ago, truly the theme is timeless as well as universal. I hope you enjoy the story.


The private, Christian school where I work had undertaken a most worthy Christmas service project. After purchasing backpacks/duffel bags, etc., students had filled the packs with items that the homeless might need: wooly mittens, warm hats, canned food, bottled water, blankets, etc. The plan was to deliver these packs to these poor unfortunates just prior to Christmas Day. It was a wonderful, heart-warming gesture, and one in which I wanted to participate.

The appointed day for our delivery was Friday morning, December 22, the very first morning of our Christmas holidays. As I woke that morning around 7:00 a.m., I was keenly aware of my surroundings: a warm house, a cozy bed, security in my environment, and knowledge that a breakfast of any kind of my choosing awaited me in my fully stocked kitchen. While I did not feel guilty for having these things, I did feel a tremendous sense of gratitude for my situation, and knew I was blessed beyond what I really needed to exist -- having much that enhanced my life beyond my needs, and in fact, to many of my wants. As I dressed and ate, I continued to experience this sense of gratitude for all that God had given me. And I prayed that God would bless those we served as we worked as Christ's servants.

Our group met at school quite early to pack up our gifts and trek to where the homeless lived -- if that's not an oxymoron. Where DO the homeless live? I was about to find out. We circled up on the parking lot of the Middle School Building, and while holding hands, Kory, one of our faculty, led us in prayer for our mission. There were four vehicles filled to the brim with these gift-laden backpacks.

I was traveling with one of our parents and her daughter; another student from school; and Kory. The back of the huge suburban-type vehicle in which I was riding was chock full of backpacks as well as our good intentions of serving the homeless.

And off we went! While I had been in the "homeless area" of town, having visited the Presbyterian Night Shelter (PNS) numerous times -- and also that of the Women's Haven -- encountering the homeless at that particular level was not an unknown to me. But I was wondering how this particular event would impact me. While I had no fear, coming face-to-face with the homeless was not something to which I was accustomed. It’s easy enough to make sandwiches, then leave only to have those sandwiches served long after I’m gone. It’s another to come into contact close enough as to be able to give a Christmas greeting and shake hands.

As we were driving toward the designated area, the parent who had gone on such a service project before explained how the event would work: we would drive to known areas where the homeless stayed, get out, open up the hatches of our vehicles, and pass out the Christmas bags. I remarked that perhaps many of the homeless had taken refuge at the PNS since the temperatures had been at or below freezing that previous night. Knowing that many sought this shelter in the worst of weather, I didn't really think we'd find many of the homeless out and about at 8:30 a.m. in the morning. Little did I know what was to come. Very little, indeed.

And, in fact, it did take us several tries before we actually found a few of the homeless. We had driven around vacant lots, through "neighborhoods" one could hardly call a neighborhood, and finally came upon three homeless men. As was our plan, we all stopped, got out, opened the hatches, and started offering our bags.

"Would you like a Christmas bag?" was our greeting. "Merry Christmas! Here's a gift for you," was yet another. While I was not fearful of the close encounter with these dirty, battered, forlorn-looking men, I did wonder what our students were thinking. Looking over at Colton, Katelyn, and Elizabeth delivering these packs of clothing and food, I was pleased to see the look of concern, and the love of Christ as they lovingly doled out our gifts.

That first stop garnered only three men. Back into our vehicles, back through some pretty rough neighborhoods, we continued in our search for the homeless. As we drove, the parent related how she and her family come out as a family on Christmas Day, bringing backpacks they themselves had filled, distributing their gifts to the homeless. As we approached a vacant corner lot, she excitedly remarked, “It's usually in this area that we hit the jackpot."


"What?" I thought. "The jackpot? It this what we are about? Hitting a jackpot???" I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Her casual remark struck me as rather callous and unfeeling, yet here she was, with her daughter, out on the first morning of their Christmas holidays, sharing in this labor of love. Playing her comment again in my head, I tried once more to understand her meaning. While I did not gain any more understanding of the comment, it did answer my question of how she knew where to go and what to do.

We arrived at out next stop -- in a large parking lot right across the street from Broadway Baptist Church. All four vehicles stopped, everyone got out, and once again the hatches were opened. At first no one approached us. Several of the adults in our little group picked up packs and started walking toward some of the people who were standing around the parking lot. Within a few minutes, more homeless folk seemed to pour out from thin air. And they weren't just walking toward us -- they were running! It broke my heart to think that they might be worrying that we would leave. It was on that parking lot that we gave out close to 50 of our gifts. Many "Merry Christmases" were exchanged, hands met with warm handshakes, and the receivers of our gifts, with heads bowed low, softly thanked us for our kindness and thoughtfulness. It was quite a humbling experience for me. And I was simply amazed to learn that this was "how it worked": people came with bags, the homeless approached, and gifts were distributed -- as if everyone knew their assigned part in this strange-to-me one-act play. In the current vernacular, I was really trying to wrap my head around this happening.

After only an hour, we had a few more bags to distribute. Driving a mere 3 blocks from the church on a small street that could hardly even be called a “street“ -- it was more of an alley -- we found other of the homeless sitting on a broken down brick wall. These folk were eager to approach us, as if they knew what we had come to do. Once again, everyone knew his part and played it as before.

"Merry Christmas! Would you like a Christmas gift?" "God bless you -- please accept our gift." And so forth. We were nearing the bottom of our pile of gifts, and I was praying hard that we'd have just enough. Not one single bag left over, but just enough for everyone who came to our huddle of vehicles.

Unfortunately, it was not to work out so neatly and evenly. We had to turn away around ten men. Yet, if we’d had a thousand bags, we’d have given out every single one of them. These ten men would not receive the tangible gifts we’d brought to them. And while the spiritual gift of prayer is not to be underestimated, you can’t eat a prayer; you cannot tuck your cold hands into a prayer. Again, I experienced the heart-breaking ache for these cold unfortunates.

I walked over to our Principal, who had come with her husband to help deliver our gifts. “This is both heart-warming and heart-breaking all at the same time,” I said. “I know,” she observed, and then continued, “And with the resources we have (our country’s resources), this should not be happening.” I mentioned the current war situation and all the money that was being sucked up for that hopeless cause. “Why couldn’t we use that money for the homeless?” “Exactly my thoughts,” she responded. Shame, shame, and more shame on our government's administration and on anyone who continues to say that life is sacred, yet does nothing to help some of the most vulnerable of our society. It is in the New Testament that Jesus remarks that the homeless will always be with us, but He also says that “...anything you do for the very least of my brethren, you also do unto me...”. (Matthew 25:40)

We had given out all of our Christmas bags, and were beginning to feel the effects of the temperature, which hovered between 35 to 40 degrees. It was time to head back to school where we would all go our separate ways for the remainder of the holidays.

Before closing my story, however, I would like to share the blessings of that day: how much more I received than I gave during this event. I will forever remember the men who eagerly, or perhaps desperately, reached for our Christmas bags; the eyes of one of the men to whom I gave a backpack -- the near tears in his haunting, brown eyes where I saw not only his gratitude, but also the hopelessness of his situation; the woman asleep on the porch of a vacant home, how one of her friends told us of her illness due to walking without shoes in the rain of several days past; how I wish I had thought to give her my own shoes! -- but thankfully, one of our own group went back to do so. God bless you, Chris.

Back in the warmth and comfort of my own home, I continue to realize my many blessings, and give God thanks for providing for my needs. But since that day of gift-giving to the homeless, I find myself wondering. “Where are they today? What are they doing? Where is the man with the brown eyes? Does he have any family? And if so, why isn’t he with them now?” And I continue to try and wrap my head around the plight of these nameless, though no longer to me faceless, people who call the streets of Fort Worth home.

An old proverb goes something like this: “May we not be about giving only at Christmas, but be about the giving of Christmas throughout the year.” We are more acutely aware of those who are less fortunate at Christmas, but do they not have needs year ‘round? We know that they do. May we -- may I -- be ever mindful of this, and seek to give out the blessings of Christmas every day of the year. I know this will be my intent for the New Year ahead.

No comments: