An acquaintance of mine has spent a few days this week standing outside a local Wal-Mart. Busy place this time of year, but you’d still see him. He’s the one guarding a red kettle and holding a bell in his hand.
You’d hear him before you saw him, most likely. CLANGEDY-CLANGEDY-CLANGEDY. The sound of Christmas. He signed up for three four-hour shifts, which he says is about as much as his old body can take.
“Ringin’ for Jay-zus,” he says.
He tells me it’s mostly a nice way to spend an afternoon. I’d agree with that. I’ve always wanted to be a bell ringer for The Salvation Army, and one of these days I will. Me and the kids, I think. It’d be a good life lesson for all of us. It certainly has been for my friend. He’s learned a lot about people this week, and about himself most of all.
I asked him what it’s like to stand out there. I’m not an innocent when it comes to these modern times. Things happen to bell ringers that didn’t used to. They get robbed or accosted or made fun of. I would imagine such things could never happen around here, but you never know. Doesn’t matter where they are, people are still people. Here’s what he told me:
He likes standing in front of the Wal-Mart better than standing in front of the higher-end stores. Sure, the perks aren’t as good (last year he got free hot chocolate from the coffee shop downtown), but he said the giving is different. Wal-Mart folks tend to give both more and more often than other folks. That surprised me, but not him. He said poor folk know what poor feels like, and that’s something they’d never wish on anyone else.
And he knows all about how some people skirt as far away from the kettle as they can. How they’ll look down at the ground real quick as they pass or pull out their phones. Every bell ringer knows this, he said. These are the people who don’t have any change in their pockets or who gave last week or who are just in a hurry to get some shopping done. He doesn’t begrudge anyone for this. He gives such people the same CLANGEDY-CLANGEDY-CLANGEDY and “Merry Christmas!” as he gives those who pull out their ones and fives. He wanted me to make sure I passed that along—it’s okay if you don’t give money. Sometimes a smile is good enough.
But mostly ringin’ for Jay-zus isn’t about the poor or even Christmas, it’s about him. He said that bothered him a good deal at the start, but not so much now. He figures it’s God’s way of teaching him something that maybe otherwise would have gone unnoticed.
My friend’s honest—sometimes those four hours fly, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes that bell feels light as a feather, and other times it’s an anvil. It can depend on everything from how much sleep he’d gotten the night before to what the weather is, but he doesn’t think that’s the point. No, the point is how he feels sometimes when he’s smiling and Merry Christmasing and going CLANGEDY-CLANGEDY-CLANGEDY.
Because sometimes he feels like he’s really doing something. That he’s a part of something bigger than himself and contributing some good. That the world maybe isn’t in as bad a shape as everyone says it is.
Other times, he’s a little more skeptical. No one puts anything in that old kettle. Three hours standing here in the cold with my knees locked up, he thinks, and for what? A few handfuls of silver. They walk in acting like they can’t give me anything, they walk out with flat screen TVs and pack them in fancy SUVs with Jesus is the Reason for the Season bumper stickers. He thinks such a thing makes Jesus nauseous. Then he wonders what kind of television reception they get in hell.
Not that he’s exempt himself. Because there are plenty of times when he stands there ringing his bell thinking about how much God must love him right now, because he could be sitting at home or out watching a movie but instead he’s standing in front of the Wal-Mart freezing to death for the poor people. Those are the times he thinks hell is earmarked for people who don’t think they deserve to go there.
It’s mostly the realist in him that wins out in the end, though. The part of my friend that says we’re all trying as much as possible to do what we can. That we’re all lost and wanting, and we’re all just trying to find our way. That deep down, all we really want is to love and be loved.
That’s what ringing the bell has taught him most.