As Christmas approaches, volunteers in red aprons or jackets and a velvet Santa cap stand by a red bucket and ring a bell. You see them in front of supermarkets and stores and hear them wishing people a Merry Christmas, even those who don’t give a dime to help others, but walk right past to shop inside. Rick and I have not rung the bell, but we never pass by those who do without putting money in the bucket.
Years ago during the Great Depression, Rick’s Dad jumped a train in the Carolinas and headed west in the hope of a better future. All the money saved for college was gone, but he’d heard a smart young man could make something of himself in California. He ended up in Oakland with 14 cents in his pocket. Exhausted and hungry, he wrapped his shoes in his shirt and used the bundle for a pillow. Dad slept soundly and didn’t awaken when a thief lifted his head and took the few possessions he had.
What does a young man do who has nothing but a few cents to his name and barely enough clothes to cover himself?
William Richard Rivers wandered the city streets looking for help. He didn’t want a hand-out. He wanted a job. And he sure wouldn’t be able to find one shirtless and barefoot. He was directed to the Salvation Army. This church-of-action was founded by William Booth in 1865, and ministers to the poor, the homeless, the hungry and the destitute. The person in charge of the Oakland branch asked Dad if he could chop wood. Dad said he was a Carolina boy and knew everything there was about chopping wood! They gave him the clothing he needed and handed him an axe. He made enough money to get the start he needed.
Over the years, Rick’s dad ran several aviation businesses. He bought a beautiful home on a golf course. He and Mom Edith traveled the world and made friends everywhere they went, many of whom came to visit over the years. And in all that time, Dad never forgot who gave him the hand up. Whenever Christmas came around, he and Mom never passed by a Salvation Army bell ringer without putting money into that red bucket. They knew it would go to helping someone else.
Sadly, some stores and malls have banned the Salvation Army bell ringers because they say “Merry Christmas!” Rick and I just look for the stores who welcome the Army. We want the opportunity to say to these often beleaguered volunteers, “Thank you for helping a church that has helped thousands get back on their feet – including Dad Bill. God bless you!” And it helps to thank the store that welcomes them, too.