I met a man and woman this week who, I’m certain, have no idea how many more shopping days there are until Christmas. They have more important things on their minds. Such as whether there will be room for them in the shelter tonight. Or, whether they’ll be spending another cold, winter night trying to sleep in their old van.
I didn’t go looking for them. They found me. It was in the parking lot of TARGET, while I was opening my car door to put some packages (yes, Christmas shopping) in the back seat. From behind, I heard a man’s voice call, “Excuse me, Ma’am, do you have a minute?” I turned toward the voice and saw that a van had pulled up behind my car. The man was in the driver’s seat, talking to me through the open window on the passenger side. Closest to me was a woman, younger than I, staring straight ahead, her expressionless face fixed.
At first, I thought they might be asking for directions. I approached the van, standing next to the open window and the woman who never looked at me. “We spent last night in our van; the shelter was full,” the man started to tell me. I glanced quickly at their layered clothing and into the back of the vehicle as I realized they were asking for help. “We’ll probably be spending tonight in our van, too,” he continued. “Could you spare a little cash for some food or some gas?”
As I listened to him, I could barely take my eyes off the woman who was seated just inches away from me. She continued to stare straight ahead, never speaking or turning to look at me. She didn’t have to. Her face told me all I needed to learn that morning. I saw humiliation, silent suffering, and stoic desperation.
“Yes, I can help you,” I responded, opening my purse and reaching for my wallet. I’m not sure what I was thinking of giving to them. I rarely carry anything larger than 20’s because I usually get my money from an ATM. But as I opened my wallet, the first thing I saw was a $100.00 bill, which someone had given me a few days before.
I handed it to the woman, telling her, “This is for you.” As I did, something totally unexpected and remarkable happened. She glanced down at the bill and before my eyes a human being came to life. Her face lit up. She turned to me and smiled. “Oh, God bless you,” she said. “What is your name?” I told her mine and asked hers. Angie.
We talked for a few minutes. She told me she would pray for me, pointing to a holy card of Jesus that was held to the van visor above her head with a rubber band. I told her I would do the same for them. Then she held up her arms and said, “Come here, Anne.” I stepped closer, reached into the van and we hugged each other. Then they drove away.
I stood in the cold for a few minutes watching their van inch toward the street, crowded with mid-day shoppers. I was happy that I was able to help them for one day. The $100 bill that I gave them was very small compared to the abundance in my life. And it didn’t change their present situation for more than a few hours. But I know that I was able to give a woman who crossed my path a little bit of her dignity, her humanity back.
I can only imagine how hard it is to retain your sense of self-esteem when you are reduced to asking strangers for cash and living in your van. I have no idea how the couple I met arrived at their present situation. I only know that I was enriched by the opportunity to remind them, in a very small way, of how worthy they are of self-respect. And my respect.
What the two of them gave me was even more valuable. They reminded me, in a way I will never forget, how surrounded we are by people who need us. And whom we need just as much. Some are hungry and as desperate for self-respect as they are a warm place to sleep. Others need our time, our friendship, our patience and the best of us, even when we may be feeling our worst.
I’ve shortened the list of presents I’ll be buying this year. But I’ve expanded my sense of possibility of what I can give. To my family, my friends, work colleagues and even strangers I pass on the street. The best gifts can’t be found at Target or Neiman Marcus. Yet they are as individual as anything a professional shopper could gift wrap. If we’re paying attention, the requests are just as clear as the one from Angie, who couldn’t bring herself to ask.###
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