"Got any spare change?" The older, scruffy man asked my sister and me as we made our way out of the gas station one chilly night last fall.
We had arrived only minutes earlier to see him rummaging through the trash cans by the building and near the gas pumps pulling out anything that could be of use to him. He had on only mere rags and a thin coat. His disheveled hair and long beard, not to mention how filthy he appeared, told us he may have been on the streets far too long.
Being from a small town with only a handful of businesses and one traffic light, it was surely a rare sight indeed.
After making our purchases, we made our way to the car with our hands full of food and drinks that we thought we couldn't afford. He leaned up against the wall and looked at us with painful eyes. As I fearfully averted my eyes from him, my sister smiled and said 'hello' as she walked past.
"Got any spare change?" he asked as we climbed in the warm car.
Without a second thought, my sister grabbed a container of change she kept in her center cup holder and handed it to the stranger.
“God Bless you!” he said with gratitude. “I hope someone helps you someday.”
“Many have helped me, sir. That’s why it’s important for me to help others.” My sister replied.
As I sat in the passenger seat of the car with a warm sub sitting in my lap, I felt guilt that my fear of strangers prevented me from looking this human being in the eyes. I felt pride for my sister that she stepped up to do what I didn’t.
“I could have given him my sub.” I said, shamefully as she got back into the car.
We both looked at one another then up to the man who had made his way halfway across the empty parking lot. My sister pulled the gear shifter back and reversed, back into drive to head for the exit. Only seconds had passed to do this but when we got to the exit, we searched for one last glimpse of him but he was nowhere to be found. It was as if he vanished into thin air. How could he have made it out of sight by now? Even if he was heading to a house, he would not have had time to make it. He was walking away from the gas station, so he didn’t have time to turn and go in without us noticing.
We looked in every direction but all we saw were empty streets.
“Where did he go?” We both said to one another.
Never before and never since then have I seen this stranger.
My thoughts were taken back to when I was six years old. My mother had taken me, along with my four sisters, to an amusement park. We spent the day taking in all the attractions this park had to offer. As we made our way through the children oriented sights, something caught my eye. A big treehouse. Not just a little house sitting on the tree branch but a house made from the entire inside of the tree. It had the big brown trunk and green leafy top with the staircase leading up to the pink and white door with windows wrapped all around with pink panes and a blue glow from inside. I also saw the bright red school building with an arch of vines and flowers at the entrance. “The Bear Country School” - It was the Berenstain Bears!
Like a moth to a flame, I made my way over to check out the buildings, the waterfall, the playground... it was a sight for a fascinated six year old. I snapped out of my amazement as someone bumped into me. I suddenly realized that I was alone. A little girl in a strange place without a familiar face in sight. I didn’t know which way I came, I didn’t know which way to go. I put my face into my hands and began to weep uncontrollably.
“Are you alright my dear?” A feeble voice came from above me with a gentle hand on my shoulder.
I looked up to see an elderly woman with white hair and a wrinkled face staring down at me with gentle, concerned eyes.
“I’m lost.” I said, still crying.
“I’ll help you find your mommy.“ She said grabbing my tiny hand and leading me to the small Berenstain Bear souvenir shop.
I suddenly heard the soft ring of my mothers voice from behind. Still holding the woman’s hand, I watched my mother running toward me. “Are you ok? Where did you go?” She rambled on in a worried tone.
“I wanted to see the bears but I got lost but this lady helped me...” I said cutting off as I turned to see that my hand was empty.
“What lady?” My mom asked looking around.
“The old lady with white hair.” I stated, scouring the area for the lady who had helped me.
She had vanished. I could still feel the warmth of her hand in mine but my mom had never seen the woman and I could not spot her either. Where had she gone? Why could she have not stayed long enough for us to thank her for taking such good care of me?
Growing up, I thought of this woman often and she will not be forgotten.
All of these events were brought back to my memory and attention after last weekend when I was making sure an acquaintance got home alright. I had just met this woman that night through a friend of a friend. I didn’t know her well but after she had become quite upset throughout the evening, she insisted on walking home. Although I understood her wanting to walk, I couldn’t allow myself to watch her wander off into the night alone, so I joined her. Although, she insisted I go back, I promised her that I was not going to leave her until I knew she was safely home.
As the newly falling snow whipped around us, we crossed a street and scurried past a local factory. Two people rushed out of the side door and blew past us as if break time from their third shift couldn’t have come fast enough. As we passed the door they had come out of, I saw a woman leaning her hands up against the wall moving one foot on top of the other, then that foot on top of the other and so forth. I glanced down to see that she was completely barefoot. She had a coat on and seemed appropriately dressed for the weather except for the fact she was missing not only socks but shoes as well. Her eyes met mine as I kept walking, noticing the bare toe and heel outlines in the snow. I stopped and looked back at her as we, once again, locked eyes.
As I stood there in my own confusion, I looked back at the woman I promised to walk all the way home. Completely unaware that I had stopped walking, she was already a half block ahead of me. I felt torn. So many questions rummaged through my head. I couldn’t help both of these women. I had to choose. I wanted to give this shoeless woman my shoes and then I could have caught up with the other woman, as I saw her slipping further and further away. I knew the fragile state she was in at that moment. I knew nothing about what was going on with the lady with no shoes. In my confused and somewhat rushed state, I ran to catch up with the woman I was walking home.
Once again, I looked back to the shoeless woman. She was gone.
Who was this woman? Why was she out at night, in the snow with no shoes? Did she work at the factory? -- with no shoes? Did she have to suddenly flee home from an abusive parent or husband? A sudden sinking feeling came over me... Had I made the right choice? I felt, I knew... that the answer was... no.
From a logical point of view, it’s easy to figure or assume that the scruffy man at the gas station was around but out of sight. He could have been standing near a tree, he could have been sitting on the curb, he may have even gone inside the gas station even though the time couldn’t have made that possible.
The woman at the amusement park could have turned a corner or gone inside the souvenir shop. She could have just been a nice old lady who wanted to help a distraught little girl.
The woman out in the snowy night with no shoes on could have just been ... well, I don’t even know how to logically explain that one.
I do believe there are people out there who truly need our help and support. I do believe there are people out there with hearts of gold who are willing to reach out and help because they know it‘s the right thing to do. Those people give me hope that this world has not lost it’s sense of love and brotherhood.
I cannot help but to wonder, however, how many times God’s angels descend down onto Earth. Not only to help us but to see who would help them. A test of good will... if you will.
It makes me wonder how many times we are tested on one of greatest commandments (“The second is this: ’Love your neighbor as yourself’. There is no commandment greater than these.” - John 12:31).
So, the next time you see a homeless man, give him some change (or your sub sandwich), if you see a lost child, help them find their mommy, if you see a woman without shoes, give her yours. It’s the little things we do that can change another person’s life and you never know... you could be helping your angel.
"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' Matthew 25:40