Pay It Forward
The man’s eyes darted around the room as he settled down at a table in the McDonalds on Saint Louis. Every tiny sound made him jump, which was the only interruption to the constant shivering from deep in his bones. His fingerless gloves were a punchline to some cruel joke about avoiding frostbite, and his tattered overcoat was a sieve for the unyielding frosty wind swirling just outside the door.
I asked where his home was and he favored me with an ironic grin. His food sat in front of him untouched as he pondered how to answer my question. At last, he plucked a steaming hot fry from its sleeve and considered it briefly before cramming it in his mouth.
“You mean right now?” he asked. “You’re looking at it.”
My confusion must have been apparent as I processed this statement, so he held up one hand and said, “I don’t have one. Home is wherever I am when someone asks.”
He told of walking most of the way from Kentucky to Arkansas to collect on what he believed was the promise of a job at a local horse farm. When he gave me the name of the person he spoke with, I suspected right away that something was not right with this story. After speaking with that person privately, it was confirmed that there was no job offer and I knew this situation had to be handled delicately.
I encountered dozens of indigent persons in my role as the chaplain for the Independence County Sheriff’s Office, but this encounter initially tripped my danger alarm. After making sure he was not a fugitive from justice, I arranged to give him shelter outside town for a couple of days. A local business donated some food vouchers, and the person he came to apply for a job with anonymously donated several hundred dollars to clothe him.
He set out on foot a couple of days later headed north. I got a call from him several months later and he reported that he was settled in Missouri—at a horse farm of course—and he had worked steadily for two months. He had a place to live, a little car to drive to and from work, and he was attending church. He needed one more favor from me, though.
“I have never had anything in my life,” he said with a cracked voice. “I was homeless most of my life and wasn’t sure whether I should even keep living when I got to Batesville. Now I have a place to lay down at night, food to eat, and clothes to wear that I can be proud of. But there’s still something missing.”
I tensed as I tried to guess where this was headed. He choked back a sob and continued.
“Several people in Batesville showed me a kindness and generosity that no one else ever has,” he said. “I was always the poor, dirty bum and most people wouldn’t give me a second look. Now that I have a solid job, I want to do something too. Can I send you some money to help the next person that wanders into town? It isn’t much, but I want to give what I can.”
I gave him a P.O. Box address, and three weeks later an envelope came that contained three $20 bills. That afternoon, I got another call from the Sheriff’s office that someone needed help.
Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.