Publisher's note: This post, by Ray Nothstine, was originally published in Civitas's online edition.
One of the most memorable Thanksgivings for me was serving dinner to the homeless in Hawaii back in the early 1990s. One of the occurrences that made it so memorable is that somebody that was presenting himself as homeless showed up in a full tuxedo. I was only about 11 or 12, not too enlightened back then, and I remember asking an older volunteer, "How is he homeless?"
while snickering with some of my friends. I kept thinking rich people wear tuxedos - not the homeless. Then I noticed his tuxedo pants were about four inches too short and I thought maybe he is homeless. But then I noticed he was filled with joy and spreading cheer to everyone. I thought how can one be homeless and be that happy?
After we served dinner we sat down with those who didn't have an obvious home to go to for Thanksgiving. Being around 12-years-old, I probably didn't make many conversations with the underprivileged at the table and, at any rate, I kept staring at the man in the tuxedo. Was he just an imposter stepping in for a free Thanksgiving meal? Again, why is he so happy if he really is homeless? Aren't the homeless supposed to be sullen and withdrawn?
But it became clear to me that he really was somebody in need. The regulars at the shelter knew him and adored him and his eccentricities. The man stayed in my mind for years. Furthermore, to be homeless in Hawaii doesn't automatically mean you are mired in poverty or unemployed. Housing there is expensive. But back then I wasn't thinking about all the possible nuances of why somebody might be struggling.
Occasionally, I'd think if I was without a home I'd go back to Hawaii because of the perfect weather. I even told people over the years that to be homeless in the Aloha State isn't as bad as other places. They even have tuxedo-clad homeless.
Of course, I missed the point of everything. I was focused on a material aspect of the outfit and not the person or the measure of his joy. I was questioning his true dignity and his value to the community. He deserved and was worthy of a tuxedo if that's what he chose to wear.
Today, that's one of the reasons I love the Gospels so much; Christ is continually reaching out to those who are sick or on the margins of society. He sees them for who they are, not just as someone diseased or materially impoverished. Not merely somebody swallowed up by the circumstances of this world.
The whole experience is a reminder that to be thankful and joyous isn't even ultimately dependent on one's circumstances. Having lived in some poor parts of the world and our country, I've continually observed that many of the most joyous and thankful are those with very little.
Don't be shamed by those that are more grateful than you but have so much less. If you are or have been like me, let it motivate you to be compassionate and thankful in the trying and difficult circumstances. Carry with you a spirit of gratitude and joy. It may not offer any material benefits, but it will certainly transform your life, and more importantly your soul. It has mine.