Every year on Christmas Eve I gather together with friends and family to make gifts for the homeless. We like to sprinkle whatever looks and feels like love into gift boxes. So sometimes that turns out to be toothpaste and socks or soap. At other times it looks like bottled water and snacks or lotion. Occasionally, a lottery ticket will appear inside the beautifully-wrapped boxes with prayers, fingers, eyes and toes crossed that somebody will win enough money to allow them a better life (and that they will come find us and split the winnings). We revisit the meaning of Christmas (which makes us feel warm and happy) and we tell our children that we’ve done something that will help someone. And after we wrap the goodie boxes and send them home with the families and friends that have visited us in hopes that they will deliver the packages to someone in need during the weeks to come, my family and I sip on our holiday cocktails and go to straight to bed.
This past Christmas was no different from any other. We did all of those things. We felt all of those things. We sipped all of those things. Christmas came and then Christmas went.
But on December 26, something different happened.
I was driving through downtown Atlanta and running late for an appointment. Cars seemed to be moving in slow motion and I imagined that their drivers were sluggish and their bellies still full from last night’s Christmas dinner. As I impatiently waited in my car for a red light to turn green, I noticed movement from the corner of my eye. A brown man was digging through a trashcan. And he wasn’t wearing any clothes. He had only a blanket wrapped around his bare chest and some khaki pants around his waist.
Let me take you away from that man for a second and share some facts. Atlanta received snow this year during the first full week of December. It has been unusually cold winter, and we’re only a few weeks into the actual season. My bones began to ache yesterday when I stepped outside into the wind and I was wearing three layers of clothing.
But now back to him.
He had the blanket on his bare chest and was wearing some thin pants. I can’t remember whether I saw shoes on his feet or not. I’m still calling him naked.
The naked man found someone’s discarded food from the trash and smiled, then ate it. By this time, I’d pulled my car over and was asking myself a million stupid questions. Where are those gift boxes for the homeless? Why didn’t I ever think to put a shirt inside any of them? Did I remember to put a bottled water into the one I had in my car? What will they do with some stupid ass toothpaste if they don’t have any water or a toothbrush? What time is my appointment again? What’ll happen if I’m 5 more minutes late? Is the bottled water in this box wrapped in red paper? Did I put skittles in the box wrapped in green, or were those condoms?
And while I was doing all of my deliberating and searching the car, the naked man was switching trashcans. He got all he could from one and then set about to find more treasure in another.
I found one of the gift boxes and gave it to the naked man, temporarily interrupting his hunt. Both his mouth and his eyes told me thank you. I still drove away feeling inadequate.
If that naked man could search a trashcan for food in this frigid air and without as much as a single shirt on his back, then I sure as heaven can labor a little harder to achieve more of my own goals during this new year. And while I’m not sure whether I gave him the package containing candy, latex or lotion, I do know it was neither the same proverbial stick nor the carrot that motivates a great many of us.
Mr. Naked Man, you’ve ministered to my spirit this holiday season. Thank you. And please know that I pray you a better 2018. Damn the soap and socks. I hope with all my might that you got that winning lottery ticket.