I left work just in time last night to make it to Whole Foods, a place where I typically experience a world in which poverty is not the first thought, as it is the rest of the day and night.
As I stood in an aisle, with two people between the shelf and the food choices I waited to make, the two separated and went separate ways. In front of me, however, was not food, but a woman whom I had known as the first person for whom A Wider Circle ever did a group volunteer service effort back in 2002. Alice stood there, now an employee of Whole Foods, and looked at me as I at her, and we embraced.
I have stayed in touch off and on with Alice over the years, and with her children, as well. I have known them since the oldest child was nine years old. I have known the older boy since he was five. He has one of those youthful mustaches – at least he did when I saw him two years ago.
Having just spent the day giving out holiday presents – and having been involved in giving out presents to thousands of children and adults in the past month – I was ready to talk holidays with Alice. I asked her after our hug if the family was ready for a big holiday tomorrow. She smiled.
Alice’s English is just a tad better than my Spanish, so things get lost in translation. I wanted to follow up, so I asked if the kids all had presents. Shy as ever, she just tilted her head down to the left and shook it just a bit side to side, a pained smile on her face.
Hoping we were just not understanding each other, I asked again.
“Do the kids have presents?”
“No,” she said softly.
“None?” Alice and I go back a ways; we furnished and painted their home and I have spent many days with them over the years, though none since 2010. I was not worried about pushing a bit to find out how they were doing this Christmas Eve.
“No,” she repeated.
“Do you have a tree?”
“You have a tree?”
“Yes, but nothing under it.”
I repeated what she had told me and then asked if the kids were home so I could talk to them. Alice gave me the home phone number and seconds later, I was on the phone with her 16-year-old son, a person I knew to be a proud young person, meaning I was unsure how he would react to my offer.
I did not know if he would be too cool, or mixed with embarrassment and teen disinterest, if he would shrug it off and not express a desire to come over the A Wider Circle in the morning to get items.
He was not too cool and he was not disinterested.
When told that he and the whole family could come early tomorrow, Christmas Day, to get presents, he was excited, much more so than I expected.
“That would be awesome. Thank you so much!”
It seemed music to his ears, and it was music to mine, as well. I would get to see family on Christmas Day.
As Alice and I parted, I thought immediately of the generosity of the entire community, including the woman from a local church who brought over hundreds of dollars in gift cards Monday afternoon – “just in case.” Many of the gift cards would be good for teenagers, a somewhat “forgotten” demographic in holiday giving programs.
I thought of this woman’s fellow congregants and how they had collected so many gifts and gift cards for our holiday program.
I thought of the temple that had provided so many gifts that we had enough for today – a day on which Alice’s family would join the many others that called for holiday help right up until I left the office last night to go to Whole Foods.
A tree with nothing under it.
A metaphor for our work.
Even with homes, even with jobs, our neighbors are living in a different world. We bridge that world – for mothers, fathers and their children – when we connect and stay connected. It is a lesson worthy of today – and every day.