compassion-hien-nguyen

He was a Christmas angel, though I couldn’t spot it at first.

We had been going into Westmount Mall on Friday evening to just cheer on the volunteers who had been wrapping Christmas presents in return for a donation to the London Food Bank.  It was pouring rain, and on the way in the door I noticed a man standing off to the side who was obviously having a difficult time.  He appeared down and out and discouragement seemed to mark his disposition.  We went on inside and then I suddenly thought better of it.

“I’m getting a coffee for some volunteers inside; can I get you one?” I asked.

He smiled at that point and though he had first declined, he went on to say, “Actually, it’s cold.  A coffee would be great.”

For the next few minutes I couldn’t get him out of my mind.  I wanted to know his story but knew better than to ask.  At Tim Horton’s just inside the door I get him a $10 gift card and passed it to him as I walked outside.

“Thought you might be hungry,” I said as he took the card.

There was a lot of dignity in his handshake and his “Merry Christmas” stirred my heart.

It was only as we got to our SmartCar in the parking lot that I noticed he was following.

“You Mr. Pearson?” he asked.

“I am.  What’s your name?”

We spoke for a moment longer and then he handed me the gift card.  I worried that I had offended him, but his next words drove the meaning of Christmas home in a way I won’t forget.

“Give this to one of those Kellogg’s employees, okay?  One of the ones that lost their jobs.”

The entire panorama of Christmas meaning comes in an exchange just like that.  He told me he had lost his job two years previous, was 58 years of age, and was struggling to get by.  “I’ve had to use the food bank a few times; hope that’s okay?” he stated.  If only he knew that there were 3600 families a month using food bank services, often in circumstances just like his own.

What kind of city is it that produces citizens who, despite oppressive circumstances, reach out to others who just experienced devastating news?  Well, that’s our community – London, Ontario – and through a lot of pain and sense of loss we are populated by local angels just like this man.

The entire experience made me think of Garrison Keillor’s observation: “A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.”  In circumstances that seemed totally unrelated, a poor man of dignity, Kellogg’s workers, the food bank, the mall, the volunteers, and this humbled citizen were all woven together in a tapestry that could have just as easily been printed on an ideal Christmas card.

I wondered again what kind of Christmas Jesus would ask Santa for, and vice versa, and I think I got some kind of answer.  It would be a world filled with those who could get outside of themselves just as that man had done.  It wouldn’t matter if it was in a manger or a mansion, a hovel or a skyscraper.  As long as the people in such locations could reach out beyond their own circumstances, then Christmas would be a state of mind and not just a season.  A just society would be more about shared than hoarded wealth.  The future of children would be about choice not chance.  Politics would be about purpose not paltriness.  Communities would be about the future not the past.  And people like that man outside the mall would be honoured for their citizenship and sacrifice.  Yup, that’s what Jesus would ask Santa for, and I decided to ask for it too – not out of some kind of ideal, but out of the practical experience I had outside of a mall on a rainy night.

Isn’t this really what the majesty of Christmas can be about – how the dignity of one man fallen on hard times can be celebrated in the house of everyone?  If we can’t understand that in our hearts, then we’ll never find Christmas under a tree.

Knowing about the spirit of Christmas is one thing; actually doing it is another.  Out of his own constrained circumstances one man introduced me to the reality of the spirit of compassion and not just its possibility.  Communities have been built on less but become their greatest when poverty becomes a thing of the past and the richness of the human spirit directs our actions.  May it be so.  Merry Christmas to all of you.  And on earth, peace to all of you of good will.