Helping the Homeless Is What His Father Taught Him

He and other volunteers spread warmth and cheer one sleeping bag at a time.

by
- Posted on Dec 11, 2018

Rodney Smith, Jr.

Most people put the Christmas lights on their tree after they get it home. I plugged the lights on my tiny tree into a battery and strapped the whole thing to the roof of my car. The people I played Santa for didn’t have homes, so I was going to bring Christmas to them.

My car was stuffed with donations: tents, blankets, sleeping bags, clothes, hygiene kits, Bibles and more. I made sure I hadn’t forgotten anything before I climbed behind the wheel. Then I took a moment to adjust my Santa hat in the rearview mirror. Finally I was ready. My destination? A big open field.

I pulled onto the road and flipped on the heat. Despite the weather, I knew I’d find plenty of people sleeping outside. Christmas was weeks away, but we’d had a cold spell and these folks needed Santa right now.

Growing up in Bermuda, I’d seen plenty of homeless people. Sometimes my family made extra soup to pass out. “Why do you care so much about them?” I asked my father once. “They’re strangers. You don’t even know them.”

“Son,” my dad said, “everyone wants to be treated with dignity, as a real person.”

At the time I didn’t understand what Dad meant. Wasn’t everyone a real person? Why would a bowl of soup give someone dignity?

When I grew up and moved to the United States, I continued the family tradition of helping others in little ways. But I didn’t focus on homeless people. Not at first.

The empty field came into view. The people there were doing what they could to stay warm, rubbing their hands, hunching against the wind. It made me remember the stranger who knocked on my window at a gas station the winter before.

“Excuse me, sir,” the man said. “I wonder if you could help a fellow out.”

He was a bearded medium-build white man in his sixties.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “you see that field across the road? That’s where I slept last night.”

I pumped my gas while he talked about how cold it got at night. When my tank was full I went inside to pay and asked the attendant about him.

“He’s been living in that field for a few weeks now,” she said. “He bothering you?”

“No, ma’am. He’s not bothering me at all.”

Walking to my car, Dad’s words had come back to me. Everyone wants to be treated with dignity. Like a real person. Not a nuisance or a bother.

I handed the man a few dollars and wished him well.

I thought that would be the end of it, but I kept thinking about him—a real person who got cold and hungry. I started keeping a little extra food with me to hand out to homeless people I saw on the street. Whenever I gave something I stopped to talk to the person as well, learn his or her story. I could tell they appreciated my listening to them, maybe even more than they appreciated the food I gave them.

Even better were the times we could have a laugh together. There was a dignity in allowing people to share their joy. The more I got to know the people I met, the more real each one became—not a nuisance or a bother, not someone to avoid. They were people just like me. Like all of us. That’s what my dad had understood.

I had a lot of Facebook friends and asked if they wanted to get involved in a project. Within a week, people were meeting up with me, sometimes bringing their kids. First we took sandwiches or hamburgers to people who were hungry, but soon we were passing out other supplies as well.

When Christmas approached I knew my new friends wouldn’t have a house or a chimney or a tree. But Christmas was for them as well. All of Christmas, including twinkling lights and fir trees and Santa. They’d earned holiday joy as much as everyone else. That’s what I planned to give them.

I drove my car right into the middle of the field. “Ho, ho, ho!” I called.

At first the crowd didn’t know what to make of my car, but slowly they made their way over to check it out.

“Who is that?” I heard someone ask. I got out, revealing my costume. Nothing broke the ice like a full Santa suit. The faces around me lit up brighter than my traveling tree. The field broke out into a party, a crowd of people sharing the joy of Christmas together. While we talked and laughed, I handed out the goods.

“Christmas came early this year,” I said. “Just for you guys.”

“I’d say it came right on time,” one man said, slipping on a pair of gloves he’d opened.

“Santa, did you bring me a present?” asked one lady, getting into the spirit.

“Of course!”

“And for me?” a man asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. I leaned in and looked him in the eye. “Have you been naughty or nice?”

Laughter rang out. “Nice!” he said. Wouldn’t you know it—all of them had been nice all year!

I had a great time spreading cheer in the camp. But Santa’s work wasn’t over. I visited other cities and let people in my growing Facebook group know in advance where I would be. Wherever I went a crowd of elves would be waiting to help.

Our visits raised the spirits of the folks we met. But the truth is, they raised my spirits too. Treating others with dignity brings us all closer to God. There’s no better way to celebrate Christmas, and my dad taught me how to celebrate it every day.

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