Eric Day looked up from the guitar he was playing, as passers-by dropped loonies, toonies, five- and 10-dollar bills into the Salvation Army Christmas kettle.

Instead of ringing a bell, Eric was playing the guitar his mother had bought him in November. He was very proud of it, and hoped that his
playing would draw people to the kettle.

“Let's face facts, though,” he jokes. “I'm certain they would have gravitated to the kettle no matter how good or bad my guitar playing was.

“People donate money because they know The Salvation Army, they know our reputation, they know we help people and families in need without questions and without judgment,” Eric explains.

Throughout his shift, people often paused to tell Eric how much they valued and appreciated The Salvation Army, how they or someone they knew had been helped by the Army in a time of need. “God bless you” and “Keep up the good work” were typical refrains.

In the midst of the comings and goings, Eric was startled by a voice behind him that asked, “Can I play your guitar?”

Reaching Out
Eric turned to see a bearded man standing beside him, who he realized had been listening to him play for a while.

“I really enjoy your playing,” the man told Eric. “You're very good.”

“Thank you,” Eric replied. While the man's clothes were not threadbare, one could tell that they had seen better days.

“And that's a really nice guitar you've got there, too,” the man continued.

“Thank you,” Eric said again. “I got it for my birthday.”

“I live just around the corner,” the man continued. The part of Toronto where Eric was playing was across the street from a Salvation Army church, in an area of stores and office towers. While he didn't say he was homeless, Eric assumed the man had probably come in from somewhere to get warm.

“I know a good Christmas carol and I was wondering if I could play it on your guitar,” the man suddenly asked. “You don't have to if you don't want to.”

Eric hesitated.

“A big part of me was afraid he would yank my guitar away, make a run for it and then sell it for drugs,” he explains. “I'd only had the guitar a little while. What would my mom say if I told her a homeless man had swiped it?”

But a larger part of him, the part of him that is a Christian and who has been attending The Salvation Army for more than three years and is part of the church's band and choir, came to the fore.

Tears and Memories
While Eric struggled with his choice, he engaged the man in conversation.

“I mentioned to him that the Salvation Army building across the street was a church, part of an organization that operates in 126 countries around the world, and that he could come there the next evening and worship with us if he wished.”

But Eric still faced a dilemma: should he hand over his precious possession to a stranger?

Jesus told His disciples that whatever they did for the least of His brothers and sisters, they did for Him (see Matthew 25:37-40). That man in front of Eric was Jesus to him. If he said no to the request simply because of how the man was dressed or the fact that he was homeless, what would that have made Eric? If he was to practise what he preached, what The Salvation Army preaches, how could he say no?

“These are the people we serve, that I needed to reach out to,” says Eric.

Eric handed the man the guitar.

“Please play your song,” Eric said.

So the man did.

“It wasn't actually a carol but a pop song, I think,” Eric says. “However, it fit the holiday mood of the passers-by, and a few even stopped to clap along with the music.

“You could see he wasn't very skilled but he sang his heart out, and his enthusiasm was infectious. The people that gathered around were smiling by the time he finished.”

As he handed Eric back the guitar, the man wiped away some tears.

“I want to thank you so much for letting me play your guitar,” the man told him. “I used to play piano in church all the time when I was younger but that was a long time ago. I'd always wanted to own a guitar, but we were too poor to afford one. Playing yours brought back some good memories.”

Before Eric could say anything, the man shook his hand and walked away into the night. But he departed with a smile on his face, and Eric had one as well.

“It was Christmas, after all,” Eric says, “when Jesus came into the world, not as some powerful ruler or some mighty warrior, but as a humble baby in a dirty manger. Would I have given Jesus and His family the same consideration I was giving the man? I hope I would have.”

A Moment to Remember
Eric had started his kettle shift that evening exhausted after a long day at school—in fact, he had thought of cancelling his shift, but for the rest of his time on the kettles, he felt rejuvenated.

“This was my second year on the kettles but I'd never had an encounter  such as that one,” Eric says. “I didn't expect that to happen and when it did, I said a quick prayer: 'God, you gave me faith to trust someone despite how they dressed and looked, confidence to hand over a treasured possession, and hope that it would be returned to me.'

“I never saw the man again,” Eric says. “But I hope that experience stays with him as it did with me. I'll never forget it.”

Leave a Comment