His fingernails were long and dirty and broken, his clothing, beard and hair ragged and unkempt. My first inclination was to jump up and flee.
During Lent this year, my parish participated in 40 Days for Life: 40 days of particular prayer for the end of abortion, and assisting those who find themselves facing this decision, striving to give hope and support rather than a horrifying “solution.” I’ve always been pro-life, and I’ve signed up for 40 Days before in the past just to pray in support on my own time and in my own place, but I’ve always been afraid to pray or even just be present in public. This year, I decided to change that, at least for this one time: to push outside my little cocoon and–in a quiet and peaceful way–take a stand.
Throughout the 40 days, volunteers take shifts outside the local abortion clinic, just being there. To add to my unease, the clinic is located downtown. I’m a total country gal: wandering alone in the woods at night doesn’t worry me much, but downtown makes me nervous at the best of times–even when not carrying a message that can incite horn blaring, people giving you the finger, verbal abuse.
My second time down there, sitting quietly with another couple, a man suddenly came out of a side alley and plunked a grubby burden down on one of the boxes beside me. He was dirty, obviously homeless, strange, probably not all there…and I stiffened, ready to jump up and move away. “What a beautiful evening, isn’t it?” he said, and we mumbled in reply. “Look at what I just found in a dumpster!” he went on, his eyes shining. “Someone was just throwing it away!” He peeled back a few layers of plastic bag to reveal a box containing a disassembled white Christmas tree. His fingers gently plucked at one of the plastic branches. “See how it makes rainbows in the light?” he said–and it did. His delight was simple, child-like. It drew me in. For an instant, I saw things through his eyes, saw loveliness in a cheap and broken plastic tree, decked with lights that no longer worked. “And they were throwing it away!” he marveled again, astonished at his good fortune, so happy to share it with us.
He wrapped it up again, stopping to repair a tear in the bags containing it by means of assorted knots. “I like to braid different colored bags together,” he said. “See how nice it looks?” And again, for a moment, I could see. A few more twists and, satisfied, he took his tree and left us with one last smiling glance.
He was, in his own way, one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met.
What is the moral of all this? I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps a reminder not to judge a book by its cover. And a reminder that there may be unexpected joy and fulfillment even in the most downtrodden and unfortunate of lives.