The first time I saw him, I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of guilt. There I was, cruising down the snow-dusted sidewalk with my wool coat, fleece-lined gloves and sheep-skin boots. I had worked hard to perfect the blend of warmth and trendiness. I knew I was the image of fashion as I sauntered on, my hands filled with an assortment of bag handles; my first Christmas shopping.
And there he was. He didn’t look like most homeless people; that’s what caught my attention. If he had looked like the thousands of others in NYC, my eyes would have skimmed right over him. But he was different. Oh, his clothes were certainly ragged, although his tatters looked like they had once been a fine suit. But it wasn’t his clothes. Mostly it was his eyes. His gaze caught mine and held it for the longest second, and in that look there was none of the misery, or hopelessness that normally glaze the eyes of such individuals. Instead I saw kindness, hope, even a sliver of sympathy, as though he pitied me. I pulled my eyes from his. I kept walking and mentally reviewed his image. He seemed to be of indeterminable middle-age, not old enough to be my father, not young enough to be my peer. Scruffy. Gloves without fingers, shoes that were wearing thin. And a book. Odd.
I planned to go to my warm apartment, wrap my presents, and forget him. My plans seldom work. I found myself on the same sidewalk next day. He was there, as if he hadn’t moved. I made a point not to meet his gaze. But my conscience was nagging me. So I walked into several shops, slapped plastic on the counters, and finally emerged with an armful of bags. My last stop was a bakery. Two dozen bagels and a steaming cup of coffee later, I walked towards him. Standing before him, I suddenly felt awkward.
“Uh, Merry Christmas,” I said, holding out the packages. He didn’t look at them, but met my gaze and smiled in a disconcerting way.
“Merry Christmas to you,” he said. His voice was so kind I couldn’t help but smile back. I placed the bags on the ground, nudging them with my foot, and held out the cup. He still didn’t look at the bags, but accepted the coffee with a quiet thanks. Not sure what to do next, I was preparing to walk away when he spoke again.
“Why did you say ‘Merry Christmas’?” Afraid I may have offended him, I found myself apologizing.
“It’s just habit.” He nodded.
“I thought as much.” He patted the ground beside him, and I found myself responding immediately.
“Do you know why I said ‘Merry Christmas’?” I shrugged. “Because I truly wish everyone to feel the joy of Christ and see His blessings.” I tried not to show my skepticism. What blessings did he have?
“Do you know, I’ve been sitting on this corner every day for three years now, and you’re the first one of Them to say something to me.” He nodded towards the people on the street.
“Why do you bother? Isn’t there some shelter you could go to?” He gave me that disconcerting smile again.
“I don’t do it for Them. I do it for the others like me. You see, Thems out there, like you, don’t see their need. You think you have it all. The Mes, though, they understand their need. I may not be able to give them food or shelter, but I can give them something more.” He held up the book I had seen…a Bible. “I can share with them the true meaning of Christmas, or life. If I try to talk to Thems, I’m treated like I’m insane. Thems only look at the surface. Mes have nothing on the surface; they look deeper.” He smiled.
“Thanks for the coffee. I have something for you too.” He proceeded to open his Bible, and, to my horror, rip out several pages, handing them to me.
“It’s okay, I have it memorized. Here’s what Christmas is really about. Thanks for stopping to talk to me. Now,” he nodded at the bags, “go give those to a Me who really needs them.”
I got up to go, thinking that this must be the most sincere pastor I had ever met.
“How is it you know so much about Thems?” I asked, collecting the bags.
“I used to be one of Them.”
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