воскресенье, 31 марта 2013 г.

Christ in a Stranger's Guise

By Marla Bernard

We should not forget to entertain strangers, lest we entertain angels unaware.
~Hebrews 13:2

One unseasonably snowy April in the mid-Giuliani era, my teenage daughter, Amanda, and I had the great fortune to take a whirlwind trip to New York City to see a Broadway play during her spring break from school. This was not just a trip, but a "storming" of the Big Apple, with all expenses paid by my employer for recognition of a successful project, complete with first-class airfare, two seats to Phantom of the Opera, dinner at Tavern on the Green, and two nights at the Plaza Hotel. Someone should have notified the unsuspecting storekeepers in Manhattan that we were converging upon their fair city to perform some serious power shopping!
Having never been to New York, we were warned by family and friends to keep purses hidden, not look anyone directly in the eye, and act as though we were hardened Brooklynites so as not to give away our true identities as two unsuspecting ladies from the Heart of America, the consummate "out-of-towners." Our strategy was to keep only minimal pocket change and cab fare handy and our purses inside our coats as we kept stride with veteran New Yorkers.

The Plaza Hotel was a contrast in extremes. Outside, the doormen greeted us at the taxi door, gesturing a welcome to the grandest hotel off Central Park. The streets were blanketed with snow and snow-white blankets from some charity covered the homeless lying atop the grates to get a bit of warmth. We nearly had to hop over them to navigate the sidewalks. What a silent but resounding statement it made about wealth and poverty.

Amanda was aghast as I hurried her up the canopied stairs, into the mahogany and crystal halls of our evening sanctuary from reality.

The next morning, after a hearty and pricey breakfast (I'd never paid $35 a plate for French toast before!), we bundled up with purses fastened securely under our coats and pockets filled with assorted one-dollar bills and coins for the homeless panhandling on what seemed to be every street corner. Off we headed on our parade down Fifth Avenue.

The pocket change and single bills were the result of hard negotiating on Amanda's part. She was determined that we would not pass even one street person without tendering some benevolence upon those who did not have the tremendous fortune of staying in such wonderful surroundings. She wore me down with my own reminders to her over the years that "there but for the grace of God" go any of us on any given day. My years of collecting Charles Dickens books and dragging my kids to our local repertory theater's A Christmas Carol every year had apparently impacted her in ways that were coming back to me in aces. Orphaned birds, lost dogs, "Charlie Brown" trees, and misfit toys were staples in our home. If you didn't have anywhere to go at Thanksgiving, you came to our house. My husband and I tried to raise our family to be civic-minded, law abiding and generous. It apparently worked.

What occurred next is truly unexplainable, but I swear that the events I'm about to share did happen.

We started down the street and quickly picked up the stride that swept "fellow New Yorkers" down the street in a wave of humanity that was thirty people deep. The phrase "huddled masses" had new meaning as we crowded among them at traffic lights, laughing, "We're walkin' here!" as we stood in the cold.

Amanda clinked coins into every box she saw outside the cardboard huts shoved up against the professional buildings and glitzy storefronts. Her pockets emptied somewhere in the vicinity of Macy's. As we weaved our way in and out of stores, she hit me up for money to give, dollar by dollar, to every grate-sitter we passed. I reluctantly handed her my last single and scolded, "That's it. You're done. No more. My pockets are empty."

As we approached another crowded corner, we passed a cardboard shelter with a sign that read, "Homeless and have AIDS." A hooded figure sat motionless in the box with a blanket draped from his head down his shoulders. He never looked up. As we walked past him toward the traffic light, Amanda began to cry. I reminded her that I was out of cash and shoved my hands in my pockets in frustration. I felt the crunch of paper in my right pocket. As we waited for the world's longest light to change, I pulled out a five-dollar bill. Five dollars! No way! I looked at the money and then at my daughter's tears. "Aw, geez… here."

She beamed as she grabbed the money from my hand and started to disappear back into the crowd. I hollered, "Wait!" terrified that she'd vanish into the thin, cold air that was now cutting through my very soul.

I turned and ran toward her and the figure in the box. I watched to my amazement as he lifted his head to her in a gesture of thanks as she set the money in the box by his side. His face, almost illuminated, had nearly transparent skin and he had the palest of blue eyes. I think he may have had blond hair at the edge of the hood he wore, but I can't tell you for sure. I was just mesmerized by those eyes. He seemed to look right through me and the chill that I'd felt seconds earlier evaporated from the warmth of his expression. I felt as though I was in the presence of someone not of this world. As I wondered how I would ever explain this to anyone, a crazy thought ran through my mind. "I found Jesus... and he's in a cardboard box on a street in Manhattan."

I took hold of Amanda's hand and we turned to make our way back to the corner. We walked across the street and looked back once again toward the stranger.

There was no one there.

No box. No sign. No silent figure.

Amanda and I just looked at each other. Neither of us spoke for several blocks.

Finally, we said in unison, "Did you see Him?"

Soon we found ourselves climbing the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral. "Let's go light candles, Momma," Amanda said. "It's Good Friday."

So it was, and so we did.

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