For a Thanksgiving blog, I happily yield to my wife who, as a social worker in Chicago, learned a lasting lesson about gratitude and giving.
When the alarm went off at 7:00 a.m. that dreary Chicago morning, I had to fight the temptation to roll over and ignore it. I could hear the rain coming down in sheets outside. But my senior citizens’ program provided a free breakfast for needy seniors, so I got dressed and headed toward my assignment at LaSalle Street Church.
On Sundays a contingent of homeless and street people joined our regular group of neighborhood residents. We welcomed all who came, and for some our breakfast was the best meal they’d have all week. The heavy rain must have deterred some seniors that day, because only about 50, instead of our usual 60 or 70, showed up for breakfast.
I had been cooking Sunday breakfast for four years, long enough for the magical glow of “doing something good for the needy” to have faded. Rainy days presented additional problems. Soaking wet, the street people smelled even worse than usual and tramped mud on the floor, which upset the neighborhood seniors.
Within a few minutes, other volunteers from the church arrived to lend a hand in the cooking process. We had 100 eggs to crack, 50 muffins to butter, gallons of coffee to make, and silverware and plates to set out. The cramped kitchen soon came alive with the clatter of dishes and the enticing smells of breakfast. Buoyed by the volunteers’ enthusiasm, I felt my morning depression begin to fade.
Right at our busiest moment, however, someone called my name. “Janet, someone out here wants to see you. Says he needs help.”
That was the last thing I wanted to hear. As a social worker I heard that line at least once a day. Street people stopped by the church office to ask for help, spinning fantastic tales of hardship and bad luck. When I checked out their stories, I found that very few held up. Sadly, I learned that most were really after money for alcohol.
I wiped my hands on my apron and went out to meet the new arrival. He was a slender African American, slight and stooped, with hair just beginning to turn gray. He wore neat, though well-worn clothes, and held a hat in his hands. As he spoke in a very soft voice, he looked down toward the floor rather than directly at me.
“My name’s Charles,” he said. “I’ve been driving up and down Chicago streets looking for a church that’s open this early,” he said. “Yours was the only one with a light on. I wonder if we could talk.”
Charles didn’t show the typical signs of shiftiness. He seemed sincere, and humble. After a glance toward the kitchen to check the crew’s progress, I steered Charles to a hallway out of the traffic pattern, and nodded for him to go ahead.
He had come from Madison, Wisconsin, he said. He had no job, and lived on a public assistance check. His wife had been committed to a mental institution, so he was trying to raise his four children alone. He had driven to Chicago to visit a diabetic sister, hospitalized for a leg amputation.
“To tell you the truth,” he said hesitantly, “I need some gas money. I thought I had enough, but then my car broke down.” He had found a junkyard and bought a used starter, which he installed himself, using up his money.
Charles glanced at the food piled high on the kitchen counter. “Maybe you can’t help me with the gas,” he said. “But I’m worried about my kids. We been sleepin’ in the car, and they haven’t eaten in a few days. Do you think there’d be enough food left over to give them a bite?”
My skepticism melted as he talked. Charles’s story was far less preposterous than most, and even his body language seemed trustworthy. I had taken this job to help people with true needs, and something told me I had met one in Charles.
“Sure—we have a smaller crowd today, and plenty of food,” I told him. “Bring your children in. You’re welcome here.”
The seniors fell silent and watched as Charles brought his children. First he carried in a three year old, wrapped in his dad’s heavy coat. Then a five year old, likewise carried in his arms. The older two, seven and nine, trailed behind, looking around wide-eyed at the room full of senior citizens. Despite the cold weather outside, all wore short-sleeve shirts, and were shoeless.
I asked the seniors if they would make room for some visitors. They seemed to brighten up at the prospect of children joining them. “You just sit right here and make yourself at home,” said Bertha, a 75-year-old black woman, as she pulled the three year old onto her lap.
The children sat quietly and seemed extremely shy—until food appeared. Even before we served the hot plates, seniors were already offering them bananas and muffins smeared with jam. In the next few minutes, those five visitors ate enough eggs and ham and muffins to feed the Chicago Bears.
I was dashing in and out of the kitchen, carrying platters of food, yet I could sense a different atmosphere settling in, like a change of weather. Many seniors had started the day grouchy, just as I had. Soon the room was filled with the hum of conversation, and the musical sounds of laughter.
“We ought to invite some children every Sunday morning!” one of the volunteers said to me. She was right; their presence transformed the mood. Older women fussed over the kids’ clothes and hair. Some of the gruffest of the men entertained them with coin tricks. Instead of hoarding extra food, the seniors collected leftovers to pack in a lunch bag for the visitors’ trip back home.
It dawned on me that most of our regulars, tucked away in “senior housing,” had little or no contact with children. They were coming alive, taking to the youngsters like—well, like grandparents.
Prayer time centered on Charles and his family. And then I asked the seniors if they wanted to help out. Could we donate that morning’s offering toward their journey back to Madison? They nodded an enthusiastic yes.
Each week we set out a blue saucer on each table, and the seniors deposited their nickels and dimes and quarters to help with breakfast. The offering averaged about seven dollars. Occasionally, I heard reports that a few seniors, pretending to make change, took out more than they put in.
Not that morning. Wang, the mostly-blind Chinese man renowned for his stinginess, dug around in his pocket for an extra quarter. Gertie, a toughened spinster, fumbled in her purse for a dollar bill. The morning devotional speaker slipped me a ten-dollar bill for Charles and his kids. Two kitchen volunteers contributed five dollars. When all the money got pooled together, we counted more than forty dollars for our drop-in guests. I took the money to Charles in a plastic Baggie. “What you don’t use for gas is yours to keep,” I told him.
Charles couldn’t keep still any longer. He asked to say a few words to the group. Unaccustomed to public speaking, he gripped the back of a chair fiercely as he spoke. “I just want you to know you’re beautiful people…and I appreciate this…and just know that my kids and I thank you very very much.” He ran out of words and sat down, and I didn’t see a dry eye in the entire church basement.
When a battered old station wagon finally pulled away from the church, it passed through a line of senior citizens, waving and calling goodbyes to a middle-aged man and four grinning children.
An hour later I sat in the sanctuary at the morning worship service. I tried to concentrate, but my mind kept flashing back to the scene downstairs at senior breakfast. What had happened on that cold, drizzly Sunday morning?
Normally, I had to act as a kind of police force. I watched for the street people who stuffed extra packets of sugar in their pockets and sneaked Styrofoam cups inside their coats. I warned my kitchen volunteers not to leave anything unattended, as some of them had lost umbrellas, jackets, or purses. I even patrolled the restrooms to make sure paper towels and toilet paper rolls were not stolen.
The day of Charles’s visit was different. Those same people, even the most indigent among them, were digging around in their purses and pockets for money to give away. I saw their instincts reverse: they emptied their pockets, instead of stuffing them full. In the end, the senior citizens left the room much happier than when they had entered. And so did I.
As I mulled it over, I could come up with only one reason: the joy of giving. For once the seniors had an opportunity to give, not receive. Are people somehow incomplete and unsatisfied unless they find a way to give to others? Watching my seniors, I could not avoid that conclusion. For most of them, living on small Social Security checks in public housing, society doesn’t offer much opportunity to give. To live always on the receiving end must foster a peculiar kind of shame. I saw before me the dramatic change that took place when they, too, had an opportunity to give.
An intriguing verse in the Book of Hebrews says, without much explanation, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” Who knows, we might have entertained five angels in the basement of LaSalle Street Church that day. They left with full stomachs, and smiles on their faces. And they also helped 50 seniors learn about a joy they don’t get to experience much—the joy of giving.
What a golden, delicious story! ! I could feel, smell and taste it! Tears! I felt like I was there digging around in my bag, looking for something for the kids…thanks so much you two, arohanui, xxoo carli from NZ
For sure, this might have been a blessed experience, for nothing can be compared to the joy of giving. I has surely blessed God’s heart who gave us so we may give to others too. Truly blessed. Thanks for sharing this wonderful experience.
Janet, this is an amazing story to remember. It brought to mind something I read in Phillip’s book “Reaching for the Invisible God”. It was about Betsy and the Old Rugged Cross and how she reacted to it. You both may already know about this, but I will tell you in case you haven’t.
I am a Hospice volunteer. I visit lots of old and dying people. They give us seminars about every 3-4 months. The one I remember and use is the one listed as “Alive Inside”. It tells of a man who was trying to get help for dementia patients. He said that the last thing to go in your brain is music. Music soothes and is much cheaper than medicine, which also just calms a patient down. He made a video under the above name and went from nursing home to nursing home taking videos of their response.
The two I remember the most are 1)an old man who would sit exactly as you positioned him, rarely moving. He also spoke very rarely. His daughter said he had been a wonderful father, walking them to school daily and singing to them a lot. When they put the earphones over his head and turned the music on, you could see, within 20-30 seconds, his shoulders begin to move in time to the music. Within a few more seconds, he sat straight up and began to sing with the music. When it stopped, he was asked how it made him feel and he said, “loved.”
The second one was an old lady who refused to go anywhere without her walker. They didn’t say if she needed it. They started the earphones and turned on the music. She rose from her chair, walked around the walker, went up to the man doing the study, and made him dance with her.
I realized that I had several hundred old audio tapes and a player. (I’m old too, 80.) I take them with me when I visit homes and nursing homes to see my patients. One lady, with no dementia, still loved the old dance band songs and was so grateful for my bringing many of them. I had several of the old dance bands on tape – Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, etc. She and her husband, when young, had went dancing every weekend and would dance most of the night. One lady loves gospel music and I play her all the oldies-Geo. Beverly Shea, Ernie Ford, Johnny Cash, The Blackwood Brothers and many, many more.
It would be wonderful if more people would use this way to calm their dementia family members and give them joy. God has made a way in their brain to bring them joy long after we think they are dead in their brains. I thought this might explain Betsy if you had never heard this notion. I am going to google and see if the video is on computer, so I can share with others. Thank you for all the good you’ve done for me.
That was amazing! I agree there is a blessing in giving, no matter how little or much. Some of the most generous people are those who have very little but give regardless of their own need. I loved this story – thank you so much for sharing and for all you do for those we often overlook.
God bles you Janet. Am inspired to give more. Meanwhile, I bought 3 original prints of What’s so Amazing about Grace to give to three people so that they can understand what is so amazing about this Grace. God continue to bless your ministry Philip
Thank you for sharing this beautiful story of giving and receiving. What a blessing those seniors were to that lovely family who were open to asking for help. Let us all remember that were have opportunities to give and receive!
I stumbled upon your blog today and we may never meet but I want to say thank you for the change you have made in my life.
I’ve read ‘What’s so amazing about grace’ twice this year and it is one book that has left me on the verge of tears after reading it both times. It changed a lot about my relationship with God and it was instrumental in helping me overcome a sin I had been struggling with for years(I overcame the sin for like 4 months but I am battling with it again-although that’s another story).
I have a question to ask you. How do you react when you’re a member of a church that breeds the spirit of “ungrace”? I mean a church that when you leave after a service, you only end up feeling like a worse Christian. A church where faith there seems very performative and people of authority in the church]make comments about specific members like “Phillip is not growing” especially when they’re not privy to your personal relationship with God. A church where people can judge you because you don’t attend church meetings every day of the week even though you’re a student and your primary assignment is to study your books. I recently started attending another church where I feel like this spirit does not exist there although I haven’t decided if this will be a permanent change. What do you think?
Also, I just started reading “Prayer” today and I’m looking forward to learning so much. You have no idea what God has done through you in the life of this 20-year-old!
I grew up in such a church, so I understand. You can either 1) Stay in the legalistic church as an “ambassador of grace,” showing another way–which is what the early disciples did as they kept attending synagogue services or 2) Go to the new church and enjoy. Much depends on what level of spiritual nourishment you need. In a sense the “old” church needs you more than you need them–but, then, that’s a demanding and difficult role for you. –Philip
Thank you for your reply, Philip. Like I mentioned before, I’m currently reading the book on Prayer and I just finished the seventh chapter, “Wrestling Match”.
You make points for not backing down with God and essentially arguing with him. A quote from the chapter says “Man should never capitulate, even to the Lord”.
However, the Lord’s prayer states that “Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven”. Isn’t Jesus prayer kind of antithetical to arguing with God?? Why did the ancient prophets think arguing with God was good but Jesus does not encourage it per se?
I may be getting this all wrong so please correct me where I am. Thanks!
Great question. Note that Jesus’ prayer follows hours of anguished praying in which he asks God to “take this cup (of suffering) from me,” in effect pleading for some other way. And other places show Jesus spending all night in prayer before major events; I’m sure they seemed much like wrestling. –Philip
Dear Janet, thanks for sharing this inspiring experience. Philip, thank you for giving Janet the opportunity. God loves a cheerful giver; and cheerful givers demonstrate God’s love.
Lovely story. With permission I would love to share this at the Christmas Eve service of our church in Scotland.
Of course, you’re welcome to do so. –Philip
The story not only teaches the joy of giving but also to be grateful to God for the so called “little things” in our lives. So inspiring!
Thank you for sharing this inspiring story. It is beautiful and a wonderful reminder of how much joy giving brings. I am British so don’t celebrate Thanksgiving but I do endeavour not always successfully to live life with a thankful heart.
Thank hank you for your beautiful story.
I am a retired Social Worker.
Tiring and draining at times, but then there are those who make it all worth while.
Blessings to you and all who you love
Elaine in Australia
Thanks so much for sharing. I wonder if the Holy Spirit will use this to open many of our eyes and hearts to entertain angels.
Great story, made me shed some tears. Thank you kindly
Thank you, Janet. I needed that. It made me remember that we should all be looking for opportunities to serve and to give of our time and money.
I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. See you soon.
Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. There is so much in it, which is part of the miracle of GOD’s loving relationship with his human folk.
I believe that being able to receive in a humble way and with true gratitude and joy is the main key to live and love and a gift to GOD and others in itself. This is why receiving the way the father and his kids were able to allow was a giving at the same time and had this wonderful effect on all others in the room.
The same way GOD needs us to be able to humbly and joyfully receive HIS love and gifts…HE is full of joy when we accept his generosity and can’t do anything good to us if we deny HIM or reject HIM or try to take in an inappropriate way.
So, I can see the joy of unconditional giving as well as the great gift of free and pure humble receiving in this story. And both qualities are equally important.
God bless you.
Thank you. Sweet tears in my eyes.
Thank you!this was the first time I have read anything written by you Janet.thank you again.it does motivate me toask our Church to do something more on the Wednesdays they meet with senior citizens.
I love the KOG and these expressions of it at work do so much for my heart!
I guess I have to conclude ( not that I thought any different ) its better to give than receive. Although receiving is also good and necessary.
Keep up the good work. good on ya!
This is encouraging and touching.
Thank you very much for sharing.
I love reading everything that Phillip writes, but there is nothing like the love of a mother to tell this wonderful story of true, unselfish giving. Thank you for sharing this touching story.
Thanks, Nancy. A tender reminder for me of the gentle hearts that reside in each person, be they seniors, poor – whatever – waiting for an opportunity to release the love inside towards others. Actually, my experience revealed that the poor are the first and most generous of givers. Don’t we do them, or anyone in need that we serve, a disservice by not allowing them to participate in giving in some appropriate way?
Thank you for this touching story Janet! In all my years of following Philip’s writings, I have been holding out hope that we might hear more from you as well;) Thanks for obliging!
Thank you for sharing, it did my heart good. Every blessing.
Thank you Janet. Wishing you and Philip a very blessed Thanksgiving.
Thanks Janet! Lots of memories!😊❤️
Thank you for sharing your heartfelt morning. I run a nursing facility just north of Denver. Your thoughts made me think about ways we could help our residents find more ways to give of themselves and find the joy that comes therein. Great blog.
Janet, We are inspired by you – not just your story. Pauline and I have observed your joyful and practical spirit and your wisdom in dealing with all kinds of people. After all, God leaves nobody out. His love has no end. Thank you for being an example for us and being long-longsuffering with those in need. One of our own children has seen first hand your example. Your life is an inspiration for our family. We love you.
This was very hard to read through my tears Janet✨❤️✨
It made me happy and thankful 🙏🏽
Thank-you for writing with such honesty, and thanks for responding with a listening ear towards grace and kindness towards a stranger(s)
Lovely story. As an oldie myself I could relate. I also know the difficulty of discerning the deserving from the rest! But somehow we have to do it without the use of polygraphs!!
Reminder that we’re all family. We’re all here to take care of each other. Note how the older generation serves such a valuable role. Their slower schedule allows for time to talk, listen, or hug a young child to soothe them. The mature adults work to serve and provide. The younger are visible reminders of how God sees us: His children, his lambs who need pastoring and protecting. We’re all in this together. We’re all part of His family. Happy Thanksgiving!!!
This Thanksgiving morning, my elderly father passed only four weeks ago and my mother who will be laying in her bed unresponsive as we wait for her to join my father, my family will join together to celebrate. This post helped me remember the hungry, homeless, and persons in need that my father always welcomed to the church, some of those same people and others away from home that my mother welcomed in our home for meals. Thank you for these words to help me remember the legacy they leave of giving.
Really neat and moving story. Even I shed a tear. It is true that people living in poverty don’t get many opportunities to give, although I do strive to give something even on the last Sunday of the month when I’m usually broke, and all I have is spare change.
Wonderful story,Janet! Thank you. for sharing it. Wishing for a blessed Thanksgiving for my favorite author and his fine wife!
What a beautiful story – thanks so much for sharing this and for your honesty too :0)
Thank you Janet & Yancey’s for your true, kind and giving heart! your stories of real life are marvelous inspirations to us all, all over the world! Happy Thanksgiving and may God bless you and touch you and reward you in all your enterprises!
WooHOO, Janet, what a treat to hear from you! You brought us right into the experience with important and honest details i.e. wanting to stay in bed, seeing it as just another day. How could I not smile with pleasure and appreciation at the end. And, to see you around the table that many years ago….!
Lovely all the way thru
Thank you, Janet Yancey
Wonderful story, Janet. I have ministered to such people here in Atlanta from my church on Ponce de Leon Ave. I have learned over the years to discern the truly needy from those who are trying to scam me. For those whom I don’t trust I simply offer to buy gas for their car or food for their stomachs rather than cash that ask for.
It is a blessing to help those who are truly and honestly needy.
My church has a system for helping those regardless of their faith or lack thereof. I am involved in that ministry.
Thank you, Janet for sharing this heartwarming story, a much needed reminder about the true meaning of Thanksgiving.
absolutely beautiful and so full of the mercy and grace of God that we all need to care for others with the love of Christ!
Janet, Happy and Blessed Thanksgiving! I remember working with you (1983?) and caring for the seniors. Your leadership of giving and loving has continued to be a model of inspiration and ministry for me during my years of pastoral ministry.
Thanks for telling this important story, Janet. I will share it with my family.
May you and Philip experience an excellent Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
Thank You Janet, and thank you, Philip, for encouraging her to share he noble work with us.
Janet, what a wonderful lesson for all of us. We, who have so much, thanks to our generous, gracious Heavenly Father, loves each and every one of us, and gives and gave so much for us. Including His most precious gift, His only son Jesus Christ, that we might give to others for our own redemption.
Thank you for this beautiful true experience today. We needed this.
Lorelie Linton ( An 81 yr old fan of your husband’s writings. I have all of his books and read and reread them and have passed them on to my son who is just now reading them.
God bless both of you. Happy Thanksgiving to you both.
Thank you Janet. This is a perfect story for Thanksgiving morning.
Hi Janet! Your story touched my heart deeply . I plan to repost this on my blog Pages From Joan.
You can find it at joanwpage.com or on my Facebook page, “Pages From Joan”.
Many Thanks ,
Joan Walker Page
Beautiful. Thank you.