“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink…” (Matt 25:35)
The young man with the gray cat on his shoulder leaning over a trash can at Deane Hill Center went unnoticed by most of the people bustling about doing their Christmas shopping Friday afternoon.
Maybe they thought he was looking for recyclables he could exchange for cash. As he pulled chain restaurant bags out of the trash, it was clear he was scavenging for food.
Sarah saw him first, and he broke her heart. She teared up as she explained what she saw as she walked by the young man.
I parked the car. Sarah approached him and asked if he was looking for food.
Fearing he was in trouble, he apologized and explained he was trying to feed his family. They were living in a tent, and they were hungry. Probably cold to their bones too.
Sarah reached out to pet the cat. He explained that the cat was the newest member of his family. Another mouth to feed who needed to be rescued. Just like this man and his family.
As I walked toward Sarah and the young man, two women approached and held out food. They had seen him too. Sarah gave him some money.
We walked into the craft store. Neither of us could shake the image of another human being collecting bites of discarded burgers and old fries to feed his family. It seemed especially ironic during the holidays, when so much money is collected by so many organizations to help those in need. Obviously not every gets help. Or maybe they don’t want it.
Outside the store, I drove across the parking lot looking for the young man. He was in front of the grocery store now, carrying a shopping bag. I parked the car.
“What are you going to do?” Sarah asked.
“I’m going to buy him groceries if he’ll let me,” I said.
He didn’t let me. As when Sarah talked to him, he feared he was in trouble.
“I’m, I’m just trying to feed my family,” he stammered.
I held my hands up in a gesture of surrender. “I understand,” I said. “My wife spoke to you on the other side of the parking lot. Can I buy you some groceries?”
“You don’t have to do that,” he said. “We’ll be okay. I’ve got a little money and I’ve got some food.” He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled at a wrinkled fast food wrapper bulging with the bits and bites of food he had collected. He was showing me his bounty.
The cat meowed at me. I reached up to pet its head.
“Let me give you this,” I said, holding out the money I had in my pocket.
As he took it, he asked if I had any work he could do. “I’ll work really hard,” he said, and my heart shattered at his words.
“No,” I said, a catch in my throat. I reached out and touched his arm. “You don’t have to do anything.”
“Thank you,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” I said, and turned toward the car.
As I got in, I shared with Sarah what transpired over the last few minutes.
We drove past him. A woman outside the grocery store obviously noticed the cat on his shoulder. Her lips moved, smiling as she asked a question about the animal. He answered and kept walking. Back to his tent and his family, unnoticed by most of the world.