By Barb Arland-Fye
An angel tree tag provided few hints about the wants and desires of a 14-year-old boy who wears a size 2X shirt and pants with a 40-inch wide waist. After narrowing my options to clothing, I spotted a store in the shopping mall geared toward teens and young adults. A sales clerk assisted me in searching for the perfect shirt; we settled on one bearing the stylized image of a shark. This shirt style is very popular, the sales clerk assured me. One problem: the shark shirt was out of my price range.
Another store employee offered to sell the shirt at a reduced price, but it was still out of my price range. As I prepared to leave the store, the owner, informed about the angel tree gift search, decided to sell the shark shirt within my price range. “I’m doing this because you are buying it for someone else,” he said. I told him that I was purchasing angel tree gifts on behalf of my parish and expressed gratitude for his generosity. Our exchange led to a thoughtful conversation that enriched my experience of Advent.
He said in a straightforward, not boastful manner, that he gives gifts over the holidays to 20 kids. He and his brother and a friend from the Chicago area put on a celebration for families, treating them to a fine dinner at the friend’s restaurant on Chicago’s south side. The families appreciate the gifts, but even more so the meal. It’s about the encounter, the clothing store owner told me. It might seem awkward at first, but you’ll get used to it. If you want to make a difference, spend time with someone who’s alone on New Year’s Day, he advised.
The words of a guest speaker who inspired me the night before came to mind. “I’d love for you to get caught in random acts of being spiritual,” said Anna Scally, a youth ministry consultant from California. She spoke to some 120 women during an Advent by Candlelight event at St. Ann Parish in Long Grove. “Do people in your daily life see you as spiritual? Do they see you praying, opening up Scripture?
Reaching out to someone?” Anna asked.
So I shared with the clothing store owner how Pope Francis encourages people to go to the peripheries, to encounter others on the outside. I talked about my recent experience volunteering at Café on Vine in Davenport, where people in need of food or company break bread together. Sometimes it feels a little awkward approaching a stranger at a meal site. But the more you do it, the easier the interaction becomes.
“Connect with people,” Anna encouraged us. I did that night at the shopping mall. One of my angel card recipients, a teenaged girl, asked for size 8W shoes and a bed pillow. I found a pair of boots in that size, but no shoes. I asked the sales clerk to set aside the boots while I continued shopping. When I returned, another sales clerk was handing a bag to a customer that contained the box of boots I had set aside!
The other customer’s boots were in an identical box on the counter. The ensuing confusion reminded me of a Marx Brothers movie: three clerks and two customers trying to figure out which box was which! No one got upset. We all had a good laugh.
I left the shopping mall with gifts, including the coveted shark shirt. But I received a gift as well. I recognized the face of Christ in the people I encountered.
(Editor Barb Arland-Fye can be reached at email@example.com.)