Christmas, or at least a semblance of it, came early to a homeless man in New York about a month ago—whether he knew it or not. On a freezing night in November, New York police officer Larry DePrimo saw a barefoot drifter wandering about in Times Square. The cop then reportedly darted into a store and came back with a brand-new pair of boots and socks, which he then gave to the man.
That heartwarming act of kindness might have remained unknown and anonymous but for a tourist who was able to snap a picture of DePrimo kneeling before the man and presenting him his new pair of shoes. The picture was posted online and, not unexpectedly, immediately went viral and notched some 1.6 million views. The cop was hailed for his compassion, while news organizations went into a frenzy trying to find the homeless man.
When they did find him, they ran into quite a surprise. According to the UK Guardian, “The New York Times found him wandering the upper west side—still barefooted. His new boots were nowhere to be seen. The homeless man’s name is Jeffrey Hillman, he is a military veteran who worked in kitchens before living on the streets, and he told the Times he has hidden the boots because they are so expensive. He’s scared someone might kill him for them. Plus, he wants a ‘piece of the pie’ from the dissemination of his image online.”
After the unadulterated sense of goodwill generated by the initial story, the reality turned out to be something less than edifying—but not, of course, on account of the cop, whose act remains unsullied and worthy of praise. It was the recipient’s crass insistence on playing the instant celebrity by milking the situation for grubby dollars, that left a bitter taste in the mouth.
Kindness wasted on the ungrateful? Perhaps. But it shouldn’t detract from the purity of what DePrimo did—that being charitable in itself is a complete act, whether it is met with graciousness and gratitude or indifference and scorn.
Something similar, in fact, happened here at home some months ago—captured on video and also widely shared online, but thankfully without a sour subplot like the one that marred the Times Square story.
At the height of a storm that inundated Metro Manila and nearby provinces, a bystander was able to capture on his cell phone video the stirring sight of a young woman who stopped in her tracks before a naked child under a flyover. The young woman took off her coat, draped it around the child’s shoulders and buttoned it up. Then, with a final pat on the child’s shoulders, she hurried off.
Neither the young woman nor the child has been identified—but whoever they were, the tableau they enacted on that strikingly gloomy day in the metropolis was certainly the epitome of the Christmas spirit. The Yuletide season came early to both of them—the giver, for the opportunity to open her heart and lend a hand, and the recipient, for the blessing of a piece of clothing on a rain-drenched day. But, really, it came early for the rest of us, too, who were able to watch the video or read or hear about the incident, and who were not merely touched by the rare act of compassion and generosity, but also inspired, in our own lives and our own small ways, to do the same.
It’s easy, and justifiable, to bewail what Christmas has become. “If the Christmas Present with its full-on worship of consumerism continues to masquerade as Christmas Past, our Christmas Futures will increasingly become times when we give out of our abundance rather than out of a response to need and out of a response to God’s love,” wrote Mark Sandlin in The Huffington Post. “They will be the kinds of Christmases in which we give to those who already have abundantly while the oppressed, the downtrodden, watch our overindulgence and rightfully judge us by actions which run contrary to our words of a child born to bring light into the dark corners of the world.”
Indeed. But there is always hope—and, many times, it comes in the form of small, courageous acts of tenderness and humanity, unplanned and unbidden, arising out of the spontaneous, considerate angels of our nature. Let our gift-giving at this time of year be a reminder that the Redeemer’s coming was in part to nudge us on our unfinished task to build a kinder, gentler world—one with shoes, warm coats and gentle pats for those in need.