Here in the United States we celebrate Thanksgiving every fourth Thursday in November. The holiday evolved from the original Pilgrims’ gratitude at having enough food to survive through the first winter they spent in the New World. (Yes, I know that’s an oversimplification, but the holiday isn’t my point so much.) Most Americans celebrate by cooking a large meal, usually involving turkey and dressing/stuffing, and offering thanks to God for what we have.
I am thankful for what I have, but I am also mindful that a lot of other people in the world struggle to get by with much less. I have seen unspeakable poverty and suffering in Bolivia, and I have seen misery here in a rich country that has no excuse for poverty. But it’s very easy to get caught up in our little lives, our work, school, finances, commute, and all the other cares of the day, without thinking about the suffering that is within arm’s reach of us every day.
Many years ago my wife taught me how important it is to keep your eyes open and look for ways to help. At the time we were living in our first home, a 40-year-old fixer-upper in Orem, Utah, with our five children (our sixth would be born a few years later). We struggled to make ends meet, but we always seemed to have just enough to get by. Things were tight enough that car problems or an issue with an appliance would have been disastrous for us. As we said at the time, financially speaking, we had no room to sneeze. We kept to a tight budget and bought groceries with cash to stay within the budget.
One Saturday afternoon I was working in the house when my wife left to shop for groceries. When she returned, she introduced me to a young woman with a couple of small children. They looked tired and disheveled. My wife had noticed the young woman in the store, and when she went out to load the groceries in the car, she noticed that the young woman was in the car next to ours, sobbing.
Seeing her distress, my wife knocked on the window and asked her what was wrong. The young woman explained that her husband had left her, and she was taking the children from their previous home in the Midwest to live with her parents in Oregon, but they had run out of money and gas in Utah. She had purchased a small amount of food and baby supplies, but there was no money for gas to continue the journey.
My sweet wife asked her where they were staying, and she replied that they had no place to stay, that they would probably sleep in the car right there in the parking lot. Without hesitating, my wife told her they could stay with us for the night. They followed her to our house, where they were able to bathe, eat, and wash their clothes, and the young woman was able to call her parents in Oregon to let them know she was safe. After dinner, our girls played with the two small children, fussing over them while the mother rested.
Cynical as I am, I was skeptical and wondered if this might be some kind of scam, but my wife calmly assured me that these people needed our help. We were going to help them, end of story. Besides, she smiled, we had nothing of value to steal, so there was no risk. She was right, and I was a little ashamed of having been so suspicious.
I took the young woman’s car to a gas station and filled the tank with gas and checked all the fluids, while my wife returned to the store with the young woman and made sure she had food, formula, and diapers for the rest of the trip.
In the morning, the little family looked much better, rested and in clean clothes. We helped load up the car and gave the young woman some cash for gas and other needs. Before they left, the young woman broke into sobs as she hugged us and thanked us. She said she had been at the end of her rope and had been praying for help when my wife knocked on the car window.
I suppose some people would call that a miracle or an answer to prayer, but I believe that we are much more likely to create miracles and answer prayers when we are looking out for each other. Had I been the one shopping that day, I am pretty certain I wouldn’t have noticed a young woman alone and sobbing in a car with her children. I would have loaded up the groceries and gone home, and no one would have been the wiser.
But my wife is not like that. She always keeps hers eyes open for opportunities to help people, and she never does anything halfway. We’ve been married for 27 years, and I hope I’ve picked up some of that ability from her, but I’ve had to learn it consciously. It comes naturally for her, and it’s one of the reasons I love her so much.
I have no idea what happened to that young woman and her children, and I’m not telling this story because I want thanks from her or a pat on the back from anyone else. Besides, it wasn’t me who reached out and helped someone in need. Her example makes me want to emphasize the giving part of Thanksgiving this year. I’ll keep my eyes open.