The lady handed me a check after the service that morning saying she wanted to help out with Operation Christmas Child, a ministry that sends hundreds of thousands of Christmas gifts to underprivileged children in third-world countries. I'd never met her before, she was from out of town, visiting with her mother on that particular Sunday. The video we had shown that morning had obviously moved her. "My husband died recently," she said. "I'd like to do this in part to honor his memory." My mouth dropped open when I looked at the amount. This was going to fill a lot of shoe boxes.
We had spent several minutes filling the cart at the dollar store. As Larry emptied the contents onto the counter I engaged in small talk with the cashier. She had grumbled a moment before to a coworker about things not being put back where they belonged from the night before. An older woman, she looked tired, as if taking this job had come out of pure necessity. She mumbled about the disrespect she suffered on this job from some of the other workers. I needed to lighten the atmosphere and commented that the items she was ringing up were all going into shoe boxes to be sent to needy children, most of whom had never received a Christmas present before. But there was no lightening the mood of this woman. "Well, I certainly hope they're staying here," she retorted. "We have enough children in our own country who need help. We don't need to be sending them somewhere else." She brought up the recent storm that had created such havoc to the east of us in New Jersey. I reassured her that I'd no doubt that various agencies and faith-based groups would make sure they were covered. She continued to frown as we beat a hasty retreat for the doorway with our dozen or so bags.
One Christmas many years ago we stopped at the home of Rojelio and Argentina in La Julia, one of the poorest barrios in La Ceiba, Honduras. As we entered their simple two-roomed house with its dirt floors, I noticed nothing there that set that particular day apart. No tree, no lights, no gaily wrapped packages. It was in such sharp contrast to the mission house that we had just left with its colorful decorations and the newly-opened gifts that my children had been enjoying throughout the day. Rojelio and Argentina hadn't seen the looks of delight or heard the cries of pure pleasure coming from their three boys as we had experienced that morning with our own children.
If there is anything I came away with from those years of seeing such blatant poverty, it was a profound sense of gratitude and humility at the privileges I had received because of where and to whom I had been born. Day- to- day survival was not a concern for my parents. But for Rojelio and Argentina, having enough food, medicine when needed and an adequate shelter for their growing family was all-consuming. Having money left over to buy a few Christmas gifts was the farthest thing from their minds.
Back to the lady in the dollar store. If there hadn't been other customers waiting in line behind us, I think I might have told her a bit about Argentina and her little two-roomed house with its dirt floors and no indoor plumbing. And if there was time, I'd go on to tell the story of Antonia and her family of five that lived in a tiny shack beside the river where they bathed and drew their drinking water. I would remind her that because of the privileges offered her, she will have a certain amount of money guaranteed her when she retires and her medical needs met as well, so unlike the elderly and the disabled and the disadvantaged in other places that survive by whatever means they can, sometimes doing odd jobs but mostly by begging in the streets. I would remind her that no country in the world takes care of its own better than we do, and that same generosity has always and should continue to extend beyond our borders. Whether she approves or not.
Larry and I filled eighteen more containers after leaving the dollar store that afternoon. We knew that each one equated with that many more boys and girls in far off places having the joy of opening a gift meant specifically for them, possibly for the first time in their life. And that in turn could easily bring the spirit of Christmas to an entire family.
A couple of years ago I received a letter from a grandmother in Africa who was raising her grandson, John. He had received one of the shoe boxes that I had packed up a few months earlier. She introduced herself, told a little about her family and then concluded her letter with this. "Thank you for the gift you sent John," she wrote. "He was so happy, and I know that he received the gift that was meant just for him." She had enclosed two pictures, the first of an eight-year old boy with a big toothy grin holding a package. Yes, it was definitely from us, I recognized the blue and white wrapping covered with snowmen. The second photo was a family shot, John's family. He stands front and center surrounded by those closest to him. They are dressed in their best, their love and support evident. And their gratitude.