As folks walked past me out the front door of the church after Sunday services early last May, a man named Paul Wilkinson stopped and took my hand. Wilkinson is a regular figure in our congregation. He is also homeless. He likely hadn’t had a shower for several days. His hair was spiked and greasy. Alcohol wafted in the air around him.
Wilkinson has no bank account. We keep what money he has in our church safe so he doesn’t spend it all or drink it away.
Wilkinson grabbed my hand and looked me in the eye with a penetrating stare. When he was sure he had my attention, he said, “Pentland, take some of the money you are keeping for me and give it to the Red Cross. I want to give $40. Make it go to the firefighters in Fort Mac — they need our help. Okay?”
I was stunned. Here was a guy who sleeps in the dumpster behind a local hotel, stepping up to help. I hadn’t made a donation yet myself.
People in the congregation witness Wilkinson’s participation in the life of our church with a sense of awe, wonder and bafflement. Many see him as a reminder of “the least.” I wonder if he is perhaps a reminder of “the most?” For me, Wilkinson’s presence in our community is a welcome and disturbing gift to our often-sanitized lives.
The day before my encounter with Wilkinson, I had ridden my bike to work. The same hot weather that had spawned the Fort McMurray fire had settled over Calgary. Riding by a local park, I noticed two kids sitting in the shade selling lemonade. I like to support young entrepreneurs, so I phoned my wife and suggested she bring our little one down to the stand.
She did. When my wife asked the kids what they planned to do with their profits — she assumed some extra spending money — they shyly replied, “All our proceeds go to the Red Cross fire in Fort Mac.” They told her that they had done this a few years earlier for the Calgary flood. The kids raised more than $200 that day in small change and the occasional bill. Lemonade never tasted sweeter.
Their kindness, and Wilkinson’s generosity, were still fresh in my mind when I heard another amazing story. It involved the Syrian refugee family our church has sponsored. Evidently, relatives back in Syria had seen media coverage of the fire and sent them money, with instructions to donate it to the Red Cross here in Calgary.
They knew what it is like to have to flee from danger and leave everything behind. This profound generosity humbles us all. Their ability to see beyond themselves, and their own tragedy, is also a gift.
People like Wilkinson and the lemonade kids and the Syrian family remind us that anyone can help to heal a worn and weary situation, that we can all do more than we imagine we can, whatever it is that we do.
Thank God for those who awaken us from our numbness and lethargy, and inspire us to act for others.
Rev. John Pentland is lead minister of Hillhurst United Church in Calgary. A version of this story originally appeared in The Calgary Herald.
Sheima Benembarek was born in Saudi Arabia, grew up in Morocco and moved to Canada in 2005. In 2015, she relocated to Toronto. At first, the city seemed so much bigger, impersonal — and even threatening — until a fateful encounter in the subway one day.
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