A Baptism of Forgiving Tears

By: Major Kris Wood, Maplewood Officer

On a bitter cold and windy December Saturday in the year 2010, a Salvation Army bell ringer named Derek was about three hours into an eight hour shift when the wind shifted and blasted the bone chilling cold into his face, followed by small projectiles of ice crystals that pelted him in the face and bounced to the concrete at his feet. Derek shivered, and pulled his collar tighter around his thick football player’s neck. A woman passed by the kettle without noticing either the bell or Derek. “Merry Christmas,” Derek said with a smile on his face. He did not feel merry at the moment. It had been a long and bitter bell ringing season and his body was reaching its limit of enduring the battering of the winter weather and the constant echoing of the bell in his right hand. Derek told himself that he could make it through another day; suffering through the cold was worth it when he thought of all the people he was helping by raising money for The Salvation Army. He pictured a little girl he had seen at The Salvation Army building standing half hidden behind her Mommy’s leg as they waited for a bag of groceries from the food pantry. He knew that his bell ringing was making a difference in that little girl’s life so he rang the bell with more energy and forced that smile to stay upon his face.

“You stupid, &$#@#$!” someone said, standing only inches to his left, shouting at the top of his lungs the most horrible of all racial slurs. “Shut that bell up and go home where you belong!” the angry man continued. Derek, a large and muscular man, felt his fists tighten at his sides; the deep anger that only an African American man can understand when someone degrades him once again in such a brutal manner; well up inside of him. Derek stepped back, ready to defend himself from the angry man’s assault. “You heard me, boy!” the man shouted, and then entered the store that Derek was assigned to stand beside for the day. Catching himself before saying or doing something in response, Derek called out to the man, “Sir, You have a Merry Christmas!” With that, the life changing confrontation ended. The man was gone and Derek was left alone standing outside the store, ringing the bell, enduring the cold. Inside Derek’s mind words bounced around, questions arose and his anger seethed throughout his body. Derek decided to do what his Grandmother had taught him to do when someone mocked him or made fun of him; he prayed.
“Dear Lord. Please help that man. He’s so angry. Forgive him and help me to forgive him. Amen.”
Derek finished the day with a vehement purpose to make eye contact with and smile upon every person coming in and out of the store. By the time the Salvation Army van pulled up, Derek had seen customers fill two kettles with money; his best day ever on the kettles. The officer driving the van asked sincerely, “How was your day, Derek?” He smiled and reached out his hand to shake Derek’s hand. Derek hesitated just a moment, and then looked his friend, the officer, in the eyes. He saw caring and acceptance from his friend and shook his hand in return, nearly breaking the bones in the officer’s hand.
“What’s wrong?” the officer asked, seeing the momentary pause in the greeting, so unusual for the usually jolly bell ringer.
“Nothing,” Derek muttered as he took his place seated with the other bell ringers. The officer and everyone else in the van knew that something was wrong as Derek stared silently out of the van window as they drove toward the next kettle location. Derek usually filled the van with his joyful laughter and casual joking with his fellow bell ringers. He was known for his strong pats on the back, loud outbursts of laughter and his huge smile. Everyone loved Derek because Derek freely gave from his loving heart to everyone he met, no matter who they were, where they were from or what they had done. This day, there had been a change in Derek and all the bell ringers rode in silence, disturbed by Derek’s distance from each of them as his eyes scanned the trees rushing past the window.

After all the other bell ringers had left for home, Derek pulled his Salvation Army officer friend aside and told him about the angry man and the disturbing confrontation earlier in the day. The officer was upset and shaken by the entire event. He promised Derek that he would never have to go back to that location again. He promised that all people in the world did not look at others through bigoted eyes, scarred by prejudice and rage, but that most people were caring and kind and would never hate someone because of their race. Derek knew that it was all just a weak attempt to make him feel better but it was not working. “Major,” Derek interrupted. “That man, he ain’t so different from most others. I seen it all before. People do hate people cuz of their skin. It aint nothin’ new to me. Black men learn to accept it as just the way things are in the world.” The major was silent, embarrassed that his words had rung empty, the reality of the world crashing them to the ground.
“I’m sorry, Derek,” he said, unsure of what else to say.
“It’s all good, Major,” Derek said. “I look at it this way. That man needed to hear my Merry Christmas more than anyone else I have ever seen on the kettle. If he didn’t like me then that’s his problem. My job was to tell him to have a Merry Christmas and I did my job. I’ve got to let it go now or it will make me angry just like him, so I’m letting it go.” Derek waved his hands from side to side above his head as if releasing responsibility, stress and shame. Derek smiled and bear hugged the officer. “Put me back there tomorrow, Major,” he demanded.
“You sure, Derek?” the officer asked.
Derek smiled and said, “If I don’t go back and raise the money for the kids then that man and evil people like him win and I aint gonna let him win!”

One year later the wind was warm and blowing across the same parking lot moving spring like air into Derek’s face. What a difference a year makes. Sunshine was blinding his eyes and he rang the bell in his shirt sleeves, wearing no jacket. He was smiling and ringing the bell wishing everyone that past a Merry Christmas. A little old lady, so typical of little old ladies; small, hunched over, wearing a wool winter coat topped by a red scarf, glasses perched on the tip of her nose; smiled at Derek and said, “You are a jolly elf aren’t you?” Derek smiled and said thank you to the kind woman who put her money into the kettle. “I remember you from last year,” she said. “You have such a sweet smile.” Derek smiled his broadest smile.
“Thank you, Ma’am,” he said. “Merry Christmas to you.” The little old lady shuffled away behind her shopping cart, waving at Derek as she left. Derek looked forward to those moments when someone shared a kind moment with him, as if they brought hope back into a world that seemed to be getting harder to live in and in which to make a living.
“I’ve been looking for you,” a familiar voice said, once again catching Derek by surprise as he stood inches from his face off to the left of the kettle stand. The voice was THE voice of the man from the year before. Derek felt his heart start to beat rapidly; fear made his palms sweat and the hair stand up on the back of his neck.
“You didn’t listen to me, did you?” the man asked. Derek turned to look into the gray sunken eyes of the man. He looked older than Derek remembered, stress lines edging his eyes and dark shadows hanging beneath them.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Derek said. “But, I had to stay here and ring my bell so that we can help the little kids that need help. I wasn’t about to let you make me leave. You can hate me as much as you want, but I ring for the kids.” The man hesitated and stared into Derek’s eyes. Derek kept ringing the bell and met the empty stare with his own filled with kindness.
“I’ve hated you every day for the past year,” the man said. Derek was silent.
“I’ve hated you every day because of what you said,” the man continued. He looked down at the tops of his brown leather shoes and dug his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. Derek kept watching and ringing the bell.
“I have hated you because you told me to have a Merry Christmas after I looked you in the eye and called you the most horrible thing I could think of calling you.” Derek smiled in response. The man began to cry. Long streams of tears rolled down his wrinkled cheeks and his shoulders began to shake. He tried to continue telling Derek his story. “I’ve hated you because,…” He paused to wipe the tears from his cheeks. “Because when I was so horrible to you, you showed me kindness. I, I, … I didn’t deserve kindness, I deserved for you to hit me, to yell at me, to do something to hurt me back, but you didn’t. You didn’t and every single day of this year I have thought about that. Every day I have thought about why you didn’t yell back at me or punch me in the mouth, but every day I keep seeing you smile and tell me to have a Merry Christmas.”
The man began to sob again, this time turning his back to Derek to hide his shame. Derek put his large paw of a right hand on the man’s shoulder and said, “It’s alright, sir.” The man turned and buried his face into Derek’s shoulder and reached his arms awkwardly around Derek’s back. “I’m so, sorry,” he said. “I’m so, so sorry.” He cried out loud, sounding like a small child in Derek’s strong embrace. “It’s okay, sir,” Derek repeated.
“No, it’s not okay,” the man said. “It will never be okay. I shouldn’t have done that, I shouldn’t have…. Will you ever be able to forgive me?” he asked looking up at Derek as he continued crying against his shoulder. Derek gently moved the man away from himself and said, “I already forgave you last year when I told you, Merry Christmas.”
The man looked at Derek; bewildered, unsure, not trusting. It was too much to believe, too much to handle.
“You forgave me?” he asked Derek.

Derek gave his big, kind smile and said, “A year ago, sir. I forgave you a year ago.” The man backed away from Derek and prepared to walk away. Then, he stopped and turned back to face Derek and said, “You keep ringing that bell to help the kids and you have a Merry Christmas.”

Derek felt the healing of tears well up in his eyes and they flowed freely down his cheeks cleansing him of the past, freeing him from the pain; a baptism of forgiving. “Merry Christmas!” Derek yelled out to the parking lot in the man’s direction. The man turned and smiled at Derek and waved his hand high in return. Indeed, it was a Merry Christmas.

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