On Making a Difference
The elderly furnace in the basement rumbled to life this past week, causing the radiators in our house to clank like Marley’s ghost.
It’s an oddly reassuring sound on a cold November night, reminding me of the radiators in the house where I grew up in Greensboro.
Back then, I took the sound of a running furnace more or less for granted on a chilly autumn night — that is, until the evening my father brought home a ragged man who lived on the street in Pomona, an old mill neighborhood in southwest Greensboro.
I don’t remember the man’s name or even what he looked like, to tell the truth, which seems only fitting. The homeless will tell you they not only feel forgotten but invisible as well. I do remember that we fed the man supper and my mom washed his clothes as he showered. She also put together some of our things, including an unused winter jacket for his onward journey.
He spent the night in our guest room, and the next morning my dad drove him down to Greensboro Urban Ministry, an agency that assisted the growing numbers of poor and homeless people who drifted through the Gate City.
A year or so later, about this same time of year, my old man and I were heading home from the golf club after he picked me up in the winter dusk. At a stoplight somewhere near downtown, there was a character in a Santa suit sitting forlornly on a bench, holding a bottle of something and what looked like a revolver. He was ranting to thin air.
Much to my horror, my dad pulled over and got out and went to speak with the guy. A few minutes later, Santa came wobbling over to our car and got in the front seat. He smelled awful and failed to notice me (having climbed in back) until we pulled up to a diner on Battleground Avenue, at which point my dad suggested we go in and have a bite to eat.
He bought the man supper, and we listened while he talked about getting fired from a downtown department store for having taken a nip on the job, and how he now wouldn’t have enough money to heat his house and buy his wife and kids something for Christmas.
We drove him home to a tiny darkened house on Greensboro’s east side, and I watched the two men walk to his front door. They shook hands and I saw my old man slip him some cash for the holidays.
As Dad was cranking up his Buick, the man came hurrying back down to our car in his soiled Santa suit and knocked sharply on the passenger side window where I was sitting. He actually grabbed a hold of my jacket collar. “Kid,” he growled, “you’ve got a helluva father there. I hope like hell you realize that.”
Maybe I did and maybe I didn’t. Not then, at least. I was 13, and my old man was always doing crazy things like this when you least expected it. He liked to say angels are always somewhere watching. Santa was so happy he forgot to take along his revolver. I found it under the car seat later. Fortunately, it was just a toy.
That Christmas, though, we helped out a family in need for the first time, buying food and gifts for a woman and her three young grandkids living in a ramshackle house in Pomona, something that became our family practice for many years. Even after I went off to college, I would come home and find my mom wrapping presents and putting together baskets of food for families in crisis.
Over the years since that time, I’ve tried never to pass a homeless soul on a street asking for help without reaching into my pocket for whatever I might have to give. Yeah, right. I know. It’s good money tossed to the winds.
Many advocates for the homeless insist that giving money in this manner is the worst thing you can do for a homeless person. A less charitable view — as I recently heard some genius on Fox News say — is that many homeless people are just lazy freeloaders.
According to the latest count by the U.S. Census, there are roughly 700,000 homeless folks on the streets of America any given night. Homeless advocates point out there are probably half a million homeless families and upward of 1.5 million homeless teens between the ages of 13-17 on those same streets — the vast majority uncounted by any census. Factor in hundreds of thousands of homeless veterans, and you’ve got a lot of lazy freeloaders out there.
For better or worse, I’ve never forgotten what my old man said to me that night as we drove home from east Greensboro when I asked him why on earth he would feed a drunken Santa and gave him Christmas money. I can still hear his calm explanation.
“There by the grace of God go you or me, pal,” he said. “I know that fella might just use that money to go buy another bottle of rotgut. But he also might also use it to buy his wife and kids something nice for Christmas. That money might make a world of difference in his life. Miracles like that happen every day. That’s what Christmas is all about.”
This made an impression. Thirty years later, it was pouring rain in Paris late one August evening when my young son Jack and I hurried out of Notre Dame cathedral.
On the way in, we’d passed a homeless man with pitted eyes standing in the rain simply holding out his hand with an eerie silent dignity — utterly invisible to the huge tourist hordes chattering beneath umbrellas around him, a lone figure straight from Victor Hugo. The man hadn’t moved when we came out, heading for a cozy warm bistro lunch out of the rain.
Hearing my old man’s voice, I gave my son 50 francs and asked him to go back and put the money in the man’s hand. My version of my old man’s rule is: If someone has the desperation or courage to stand in a public place and ask strangers for help, who the hell am I to refuse? Unlike me at his age, my son didn’t hesitate for a moment.
I watched him place the money in the blind man’s hand and something remarkable happened. The man reached both hands out and placed them on Jack’s young head, murmuring something affectionate in French. To this day, though I have no idea what he said, I could swear I witnessed a blessing being conveyed.
Not long ago, my son made a lovely little documentary about poverty and environmental degradation in Sri Lanka. This winter, he’s working on a film about women’s health care in the poorest province in India. Something got paid forward, passed along.
Maybe that was the blessing after all.
‘God Bless Your Daddy’
These memories, in any case, were wandering though my head last Tuesday noon at the annual kickoff luncheon for artist Bill Mangum’s latest Honor Card, the 24th in a series of remarkable original paintings that have leveraged more than $3.5 million for agencies that serve the homeless in 11 communities across the state.
At my table in the crowded Christ Methodist Church fellowship hall sat five women, two of whom had been homeless. One of them asked me where I grew up and got interested in helping the homeless.
“A block away,” I said.
She thought I was kidding. I told her about the night my dad brought a homeless man home from Pomona and how I began to realize there was an invisible world right before my eyes. That house was literally around the corner on Dogwood Drive. I told her the drunken Santa stories too. She smiled, shaking her head.
“God bless your daddy,” she said.
Twenty-four years ago, “North Carolina’s artist” Bill Mangum had a similar epiphany when he met a homeless man named Michael Saavedra on a downtown street and bought him breakfast at Hardees. Mangum went on to become Saavedra’s caretaker and had his heart turned to using his extraordinary talents to developing the Honor Card, a powerful tool for battling hunger and homelessness.
Every year since, an original winter scene has depicted a homeless individual. By purchasing the personalized card for a minimum donation of $5 from any of the participating agencies, users send a powerful message of the season and simultaneously transform lives in uncounted ways.
To date, more than 566,000 such cards have been purchased and sent. With the help of commercial sponsors like Wells Fargo, Mangum hopes to someday soon blanket the state and create a national model for enlightened giving.
From Asheville to Greenville, 100 percent of the donations go to participating agencies.
My only regret is that agencies in prosperous Moore County — ironically where Bill Mangum was born on the cusp of poverty to a single mom who worked at the hospital — don’t yet participate in the Honor Card program. If ever there was a place the card could have a significant impact, in my view, it’s here, where the need to feed and house the homeless and repair the broken grows exponentially every year.
The theme of this year’s card is “Change the World,” showing a homeless woman sitting on a stoop beside Smith’s Diner — one of the best breakfast joints in Greensboro. My old man would have loved Smith Street Diner. And I’ll bet you breakfast he would love the Honor Card, too. Angels are still somewhere watching.
You can learn more about the Honor Card and its participating agencies at www.Honorcard. org.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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