I fumbled in my wallet for a bill, my fingers a little numb from the frosty air. The man ringing the bell flashed me a smile and waited patiently for me to drop it into the red kettle. “God bless you, my friend,” he said. I thanked him for what he was doing, grateful he’d given me the chance to bless someone else in this special season.
This is my first Christmas in Potomac. It’s only been a few weeks since my family and I moved here from Virginia so I could begin serving as the pastor of Saint Francis Church in the middle of the village. But like many of you, I’ve been dropping money in those kettles for years. It was a comforting sight to see the ringer and the kettle outside the Giant last Saturday. “The Salvation Army,” I thought to myself, “they’re here, too. They make Christmas feel a little more like Christmas, and this town feel a little more like home.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised to see the Salvation Army here in Potomac, as the charity operates 25,000 kettle stations around the country each year, and thousands more in cities and towns all around the world. They’ve been ringing bells and people have been tossing change in those red pots since 1891, when a local leader in San Francisco decided to hang out a crab pot by the dock to collect change to give a few dozen poor men a Christmas dinner.
Over $144 million were collected last year in those kettles, with millions more given online. The funds are used to support Christmastime gifts and meals for 4.5 million families, as well as other programs throughout the year. There are millions of volunteer bell ringers, who serve in shifts at this busiest time of the year, to collect support for so many vulnerable people.
As I drove away, I regretted not having asked the man with the broad smile why he had taken a turn at the kettle. He was clearly enjoying himself, swaying a bit to the music coming through the loudspeakers, waving to little kids in shopping carts. Like everybody else, he surely had dozens of other things he could have been doing on a Saturday afternoon in mid-December. But here he was, helping people bless the poor. Maybe he’d been through hard times once, and someone had reached out to extend him a hand up. Maybe he just found joy and fulfillment in being part of something so valuable and important, “a bit of the Christmas spirit.”
Maybe, too, it was an expression of his faith. Salvation Army bell-ringers come from all walks of life and profess many faiths, I’m sure. But the army itself is an unashamedly religious organization, a church founded to serve people who sadly didn’t feel at home in other churches: the destitute and forgotten. There’s still a bit of military panache about the outfit: brass braids, snappy salutes and the like. But the organization exists to wage a spiritual battle, a battle against hunger and indifference, a battle for light over darkness, for love and hope and joy. It relies on God’s help even more profoundly than the dollars we fish out of our wallets to make a real difference in the lives of the people it serves.
It’s no accident, either, that this a Christmastime project, sometimes still accompanied by old-fashioned carols played by those stunning brass bands. For Christians, Christmas is above all the time that God chose to bless the world by sending His only Son. He came as a poor man, a child born in a stable, part of a family that was dependent on the makeshift hospitality of others. The angels who sang the night of His birth proclaimed that they came bearing good tidings for all people, that the One who was coming would bring peace on earth and goodwill to all.
He is a gift and the bringer of gifts, this baby born for us in Bethlehem. And nothing imitates His work quite so well as blessing someone who really needs a sign of love, a reminder that their life has value, that someone else cares enough to make sure they have something to eat and a warm place to sleep.
Everybody’s always reminding us how many shopping days are left until Christmas. But don’t forget how many days remain at this blessed season, to share a little hope and joy. Maybe, down in front of the Giant, he’s still ringing that bell.