Over the Christmas holiday I was fortunate enough to be able to volunteer as a bell ringer for the Salvation Army. I think I volunteered during the two coldest days to close out 2010 and my attire proved it. Between multi-layers of clothing, a hat, a hoodie, big gloves, and a thick bushy beard not only was I warm… I was incognito. I even brought my trusty sidekick… the big-as-a-bomb metal vacuum thermos full of coffee. Let the bell ringing commence.
I felt a bit awkward at first. This white boy doesn’t have much soul. I think people may have been giving money for the first hour or two so I would just stop ringing. I certainly have a musical way about me- I can make the beauty and glory of instruments sound as if they were made for the most diabolical purposes. So on that day my bell was a tin can on a stick, clanging out a wondrous off-beat cacophony that heralded and coerced each passerby to part with their dollar bills and spare change.
Did I mention my appearance? I appeared a little less than a ruffian, a product of the elements. I have doubts my own mother would have recognized me had she known better. That may explain why so few people made eye contact with me. I had friends who even walked by without noticing me. While I recognized them and attempted to make direct eye contact, they turned their heads and looked away.
Could it be a cloak of invisibility that kept people from seeing me? Could it be the uneasiness of people feeling pressured to give money so they don’t want to feel guilty by looking at me and then not giving? Or could it be that I was being judged by my rugged appearance?
I had a lot of time over the ten hours of bell ringing to think about these things and make some observations.
While I am completely convinced I do have a cloak of invisibility, because I have used it successfully in the past, I did not use it at all over this Christmas holiday. I enjoy seeing people I know and delight in conversation with them so I was not trying to be invisible. I had truly hoped this was the explanation for so many people looking away from me and not giving.
It wasn’t until a beat-up, rusty 1970’s Ford truck pulled up blowing exhaust in my face that I made a startling observation. A haggardly and elderly woman struggled out of the passenger side of the decrepit truck while her unshaven husband looked on. After parking the beast he made his way to the entrance of the store to meet up with his wife. Upon exiting the store with a few staples he turned toward me, looked me in the eyes, wished me a Merry Christmas, and reached into his worn, leather money pouch and gave more than anyone else had given over the ten-hour stretch. It wasn’t that he gave a handsome sum of money because it certainly wasn’t. It was that he was giving all he had.
What a moving experience. A person who was as shabby and worn as I appeared not only looked at me in the eyes and saw me but gave what little he had to help prisoners, victims of natural disaster, victims of human trafficking, and those who do not have basic human needs. It made me wish that others had his eyes and his heart.
What was different about this man? Was it that he could identify with my poor appearance? Had he been on the receiving end of judgment somewhere in his past for how he looked and he wanted to make sure I didn’t feel the same thing from him? Had he been a recipient of clothes, food, or other assistance and knew what it was like to need help? Could it be that those of humble and poor circumstance are less likely to judge and more likely to give than those of privileged circumstance? Everything in me fought against these questions but they were validated more times than not to my dismay.
As I neared the end of my charitable social experiment one of my friends began to approach the store entrance. This time instead of letting this person pass without looking at me I yelled out. I said, “Hey! It’s Brandon!” to which this person replied, “Oh my goodness, I thought you were some homeless guy and I wasn’t even going to pay attention to you.”
Let’s make a commitment beginning this year to humble ourselves and see people differently- to see each person as sons and daughters of God with value. Let’s make a commitment to give a greater portion of what God has given us to join people in their lowly circumstance and show them love by our generosity.
“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”