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Once upon a time, giving money to strangers was a rarity for me. I preferred to donate to charities that I had screened so I knew the money wasn’t going for a nefarious purpose. So the night my friends and I decided to go shopping downtown, I never expected to part with a cent that wasn’t for a Christmas gift.
When we stopped at a red light, I saw a man in a tattered coat and stained jeans standing on the corner of the busy intersection. With a scraggly beard and a dirty baseball cap, he held up a cardboard sign that read “Homeless vet. God Bless. Merry Christmas.” He didn’t ask for money, but the implication was clear. And I prepared to look away just like I always did. But, for some unknown reason, I couldn’t.
Even now I can’t explain what drew my gaze to him, but the moment my eyes connected with his, my insides twisted into a knot. There was something about him. Maybe it was the way he tipped his hat to the women walking by or saluted to the military cadets waiting at the bus stop. Either way, as we sat there at the red light, I found myself fumbling in my purse for a few dollars. Sweat broke out on the back of my neck as the money eluded me. The light would turn green soon, and I would miss my chance. It shouldn’t have mattered, but a desperation I’d never felt before wrapped itself around me.
When my fingers finally closed around the bills, I breathed a little easier and lowered my window. I caught his attention with two fingers and beckoned him over. His eyes lit up in his grimy face, and as he trudged across the distance on unlaced boots, I noticed a distinct limp.
I tipped my head back to get a better look at him, expecting to feel pity, but that feeling didn’t come. Instead, when I met this man’s gaze in a face that probably hadn’t been washed in weeks, I saw the remnants of pride. And immediately I knew this was taking every bit of courage this man had to hold out his hand for money. I blinked back tears as his eyes crinkled with a smile.
The vet took the money with gratitude, expressing his appreciation in a shaky voice laced with pain. Then he whispered, “Merry Christmas” and, with the same shuffling gait, returned to the corner of the intersection. I almost called out after him, but I didn’t know what to say. “Thank you for your service” didn’t seem sufficient.
As we rode away, my heart ached, and I wanted to run back to him and give him the contents of my purse. Not because I felt sorry for him. Because he had a quiet dignity about him even in the midst of abject poverty. He didn’t choose to be out on the street corner accepting money from strangers. I’m sure he would have much preferred to be the one handing out the bills.
And though very few words were exchanged between us, I knew that night something had transformed me, reshaped my soul. If I could see him now, the face of a homeless beggar would be replaced by that of a human being, telling me I had reaped far more from the two-minute exchange than I imagine he ever would.
From that point forward, I haven’t seen faceless people with hands out. The cardboard signs have remained the same, some asking for money while others asking for prayers, but I rarely look at them. Instead, I focus on the face of the person holding the sign. And I see weariness. Fear. And surprisingly, I see hope. And it makes me forever thankful for the moments when I can add to that hope by sharing what I have.