Every year my daughters and I picked angel cards off the Salvation Army Christmas tree and went shopping for three mystery children who wrote to Santa Claus. It was fun hunting the wish-list items, wrapping them, dropping them off, and imagining the joy when the children opened their packages from the North Pole.
Today, on my way to the grocery store, I heard the bell and the Salvation Army bell ringer before he came into view. His presence on this balmy and sunny December morning reminded me of the day, long time ago, when April and I were the volunteer bell ringers at our local superstore. It was the coldest Saturday in a long, long time, 30 degrees Fahrenheit to be exact. It was so frigid that stores ran out of gloves. That never happened in the clement South even in December. We were bundled to the eyeballs, jumping in place to keep warm. Once in a while the store manager brought us hot tea. We were so delighted when the bucket was full – we could go home and warm up, happy that we had reached our goal, helping someone else less fortunate than we were.
Americans have always been very generous with their time, money, expertise, and help. My southern neighbors were exceptionally giving, rising to any occasion. Even those who considered themselves poor donated a dollar bill or a five because they knew that the Salvation Army distributed most of the money to the cause of helping, feeding, and housing Americans who were in need. There were no millionaire executives with the Salvation Army Church and no jet-setters among their ranks.
A former student, a double-amputee veteran, who lived in pain most of the time, struggling to walk, drive, and live his life on crutches, always volunteered in the Salvation Army kitchen – he helped cook and serve hundreds of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. His altruism and stoic demeanor were inspirational to me. I knew how much pain he endured after many botched operations, yet he never complained. We helped him sometimes – I wanted my children to be ground in humility and sharing.
I looked the bell ringer in the eye as I squeezed my donation through the slot into the red bucket – it was almost full. I saw kindness and sadness in the momentary glimpse into his soul. I don’t know if he had a hard and painful life filled with obstacles. His toothless smile lit up his creased face when he wished me a Merry Christmas. A sudden sadness overcame me, I choked up, and my eyes filled with tears – I felt humbled; my Mom’s oft-repeated words echoed in my mind as I walked away into the store, “God keeps the world for the poor and the downtrodden.”