Opinion

Lessons from a Salvation Army bell ringer

Salvation Army donation kettles and bell ringer

Salvation Army donation kettles and bell ringer  (Torin Halsey/AP)

“I don’t have time. I just don’t have it. I need to get home.”

I repeated those words to myself the second I saw him. He was hard to miss, considering the highly unusual way he was ringing the bell. He didn’t just gently twitch it like the Salvation Army bell ringers from past Christmases; he rang it as though he were announcing freedom on the Liberty Bell in Independence Hall.

Furthermore, he was prancing around the kettle, knees jerking upward with each step, like a show horse. He was African-American, missing a front tooth, probably in his early 60s, with a warm voice and personality that were both easy and irresistible.

“How can someone be so happy?” I wondered. It was freezing outside, he was living at the Salvation Army and his job certainly wouldn’t qualify as one of Forbes’ top 10 careers.

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I was intrigued, but I had no cash, and I feared that initiating a conversation, or even saying “hello,” might make me feel obligated to explain why I wasn’t giving. Even though I had avoided eye contact, walked several feet away and kept my head pointed down, he ignored my body language’s obvious message.

As I rushed by, he beckoned, “Sir, I hope you’re having a good day.”

His kind, curious address surprised me. Though wary, I walked over to him.

“Sir, you’re out here helping others, but who is willing to help you?” I asked.

Smiling, he said, “I don't want anyone to help me. I just want to help others!”

I asked if I could get him something to drink in the supermarket. After a little banter he eventually gave in. “If you must,” he said, “then a cup of coffee would be great.”

I felt like a prancer myself as I sashayed to the deli to get a large coffee and a baggie of cream, sugar and a stir stick. Back outside, he met me with a joyful grin, expressed his gratitude and gave me a big bear hug. He then leaned in close and asked if he could tell me a quick story.

Rushing home no longer mattered. I found myself captivated — eager to hear what he had to say.

He said he’d been lying in his Salvation Army bed the night before, reading the Bible, when he felt led to write down three specific verses. The next morning, he was convinced he would meet three specific people to whom he was supposed to give the verses.

He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. “I already gave out the other two verses and this is the only one I have left,” he said. “But I believe you are meant to get it. Can I read it to you?”

It was Hebrews 6:10, and he read it aloud: “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown Him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.”

I was stunned. The encounter could have so easily been missed. I hugged him and expressed my thanks, though my words didn’t seem capable of conveying the desired depth. I also told him I would return soon to check in.

My first response to the bell ringer had been to see him as a person in need. However, it became clear to me that the bell ringer didn’t need me — I needed him.

The next day, I wrote an abbreviated version of the story on social media. I didn’t provide the man’s name or the location of the grocery store, but people took notice. When I stopped by the store a few days later, he was on fire with excitement. He told me people bought him coffee, hugged him and handed him verses. He felt like a celebrity.

The bell ringer estimated at least 200 people had approached him after reading the story on “the computer.” With arms spread wide, he said, “I’ve never felt so much love in my whole life!”

My family, who had all met him through their various trips to buy groceries, decided to invite him over for a steak dinner. When I offered the invitation, he gladly accepted. Four days later, I went to the Salvation Army to pick him up, only to find he had evaporated like morning dew.

No one knew why or where he had gone. I tracked down his brother, but even he was worriedly searching for signs of him.

It’s been two weeks. We are hopeful he will turn up before Christmas.

With the all the holiday hoopla, that bell ringer reminds me that Christmas isn’t just a time to gather with friends and family. It’s also many opportunities to intentionally connect with others who may not share our culture, background, politics or skin color.

Often, some of life’s best lessons come through unfamiliar teachers who are unsuspecting people of greatness. In giving, we receive. In forgiving, we are forgiven. In rescuing, we are rescued.   

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