I learned what it means to give when I was 22. Sure, I thought I knew before then. My parents had raised my brother and I with the philosophy that the first 10-percent of any money we made went to the church, the second 10-percent went to savings, and the rest of the money was ours to spend or give away accordingly.
But when I was 22, I met a homeless man named Fred who taught me what giving really means. Fred trudged through the glass double doors of the church where I worked one cold and snowy day in rural Pennsylvania. He was thin; his beard and hair were scraggly and unkempt. His face, hands, and ears were a wind-chapped red. His denim jacket had ripped-out elbows and he wore it over a long, beige raincoat that had seen better days. His canvas deck shoes were a dark gray, far from the white they had once been. His clothing was literally frozen.
“I was directed here from the restaurant, ” he said, pointing to the little café across the street. “They said you could help me. ”
He explained that he had been hitchhiking from Georgia, trying to make his way to Canada. He had lost his job, had no family, and thought he might be able to find work easier up North. But he hadn’t eaten in two days and had tried to sleep on a park bench the night before, but was buried in the foot of snow that had fallen.
His soft-spoken voice said all of this without complaint, just matter-of-factly.
The pastor and I decided we had to help this man. Reverend Clark called the local hotel and booked a room for Fred for the night while I ran across the street to the café and ordered bowls of soup, coffee, and sandwiches.
Our church ran a clothing bank so we could provide Fred with much-needed warmer clothing. He was outfitted in a winter coat, boots, gloves, knit cap, turtleneck, wool sweater, heavy knit socks, and jeans.
I felt good about being able to help someone in need. Then Fred surprised me and did something that will stay imbedded in my memory forever.
He folded the dirty clothes he had just taken off and handed them back to the lady who ran the clothing bank.
“I no longer need these, ” he said. “Someone else may need them more. ”
Here was a man who owned nothing but the clothes on his back, who had been traveling for two weeks, had gone without food and shelter, and thought that others might be more needy than he, and that it was his job to provide for them.
I was in tears. I knew I hadn’t always been content with what I owned. I did not even need all that I had. I learned that day through Fred that the accumulation of possessions and money is only valuable if you can give them away.
A version of this story appeared in the book God's Abudance: 365 Ways to Simpler Life by Starburst Publishers. Jill L. Ferguson is an editor, writer, public speaker and professor of creative writing, communication and literature. Her first novel was published in October 2005 by In Your Face Ink (http://www.inyourfaceink.com ).