It was Christmas time, 1985. My sister and I were visiting our dad, who was living alone in Washington, DC. At that point in his life, my dad was driving a VW camper – the perfect vehicle for our excursions to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. But this night, we had brought it to the Mall, stopping here and there to see decorations and our nation’s monuments all lit up.
Somewhere downtown, we were sitting in a parking spot, warming up slowly, snug in our vehicle shelter, when a man rapped on my dad’s window, then respectfully took about three steps back.
“Excuse me, sir?”
My dad rolled down the window just a little and said,
“I’m sorry to bother you, but um…..ah – do you have any food in…there?”
That was when I looked at him – standing with his hands folded together at his chest, his dirty clothes hanging off his slim frame, his chiseled face gray and weary. I don’t know how old he was, but he seemed older than my dad – not in chronological age, exactly, but in demeanor. He was weathered. Tired.
“What food do we have back there in the cabinet?”
I looked and found a few cans – of beans, corn, whatever… and passed them up to my dad, who rolled down his window and handed them out to the man.
“Oh,” he said, obviously surprised. “Thank you. Oh, oh, thank you,” he said, smiling now.
My dad cocked his head to the side and asked,
“Do you have any way to open those?”
“Umm, no sir. But that’s alright…” He was moving back again.
“Wait a minute. Gretchen – there’s a can opener in the drawer.”
Sure enough, there was. It went to the front and out the window.
The man was turning to leave when my dad asked one more question – the one that became emblazoned on my soul. It impressed upon me for all time the difference between this man’s life….and mine.
“Are you cold?”
There was no way he couldn’t be. It was in the 20s.
“Do you have any way to stay warm?”
The man looked down, resigned, and shrugged his shoulders in such a way that let us know. His answer was No. Not really. I make do.
“Gretchen – Give me that sleeping bag.”
I reached back behind the bench seat I was sitting on, heat from underneath it blowing out on the back of my legs, and found the navy blue sleeping bag. It too went up to the front and out the window.
He was so grateful – the kind of grateful I so rarely, rarely see. And he murmured many more thank-yous as he moved away for the last time. I watched him walk away into the shadows, his arms overflowing with his newfound bounty.
My dad rolled up his window and we drove home. All I could see was the back of his head, but if I hazard a guess, I’d say his blue eyes were shining – with love.
Dad – You were light in the darkness, Christ’s hands in the world. Thank you for showing me how it’s done – humbly, freely, with a heart overflowing with God’s grace.
And the King will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
– Matthew 25:40