Sometimes a perfect stranger can touch our lives in profound and mysterious ways. While I was in Maine this week, driving through Portland on my way back home from a dental appointment, I came to an intersection where a young woman was panhandling with a sign that read “Hungry. Please Help.” I have seen many signs held by panhandlers, mostly men, during the many years I lived in Portland and while I was in school living in the heart of Boston. Many made reference to food or shelter.
Somehow this one was different. Somehow this one was more compelling. Perhaps because this sign was held by a young woman rhythmically shuffling her feet in the cold to stay warm in the cold. Perhaps it was because her message was so simple and existential.
There are many soup kitchens in Portland and I seldom travel with cash any more. The light remained red while I wrestled in my heart with what to give her. I drive a car I do not own. I eat food I do not buy. I just learned I need an emergency root canal that I cannot afford. And yet I have so much more than this young, unassuming woman standing out in the cold, asking to be fed.
I looked around me in the car and saw the white paper bag of donuts on the passenger’s seat. Whenever I go to Maine, I always stop at Tony’s Donuts to purchase a half-dozen or so. Donuts are a happy food that remind me of my childhood and Tony’s makes the quintessential donut. I had already eaten one. There were four left: Chocolate Glaze, Honey Glaze, Plain, and Cinnamon Sugar. I pondered which one to give to her. What if she’s diabetic or doesn’t like donuts? What if she needs a warm nutritious meal instead? Which one would make her feel loved like the luckiest woman in the world?
While all of these deliberations seemed to take an eternity, it was clear to me the holy One had grabbed my heart and would not let go. I prayed the light would remain red while I reached into the bag with a napkin, grabbed the Chocolate Glaze donut, and rolled down my window. With my heart wide open, I asked her if she would like a donut and held out what I had to offer.
Momentarily confused, she came toward me with a smiled, held out both hands to receive to receive the donut as if it was a precious gem. When she saw this was no ordinary donut she let out a whisper of delight and thanked me. The light was still red as she stepped back to the meridian, broke off a piece and put it in her mouth. She looked at me with a sumptuous grin on her face. I smiled in agreement, and gave her a thumbs up. She gave me a full-body nod and thumbed me back before the light turned green.
I sobbed for the next two miles and wondered what had transpired between us for the next forty… This young woman, standing in the cold with her sign had touched me deeply. I wonder how many other strangers we encounter in our daily lives are holding invisible signs that say, “Hungry. Please Help.” What might we have to offer that would warm their hearts on a wintery day, and make them feel loved like the luckiest person in the world…
Love comes in many ways that may surprise us. May you feel blessed by love this Valentine’s Day…