It was Christmas 1996. My dad and I were in New York visiting an inner-city ministry run by Bill Wilson that reaches tens of thousands of kids in the worst parts of Bed-Sty Brooklyn. Bed-Sty is one of the roughest parts in the city. Shops and restaurants close at dusk, and people say it’s so bad police don’t even patrol after dark.
Everywhere you look, there are graffiti memorials to people killed in gang warfare.
We were there to help Bill’s team pass out Christmas gifts to kids as part of Operation Holiday Hope. Thousands of toys had been donated by people from all over the country, and to most of the kids, these gifts were the only ones they were going to receive that year. It was awesome to see their faces light up, and show them the generosity and love of God.
During one of the days we were there, Bill wanted to take my dad and I to visit some of his friends. What he didn’t tell us at first is that they just happened to live in abandoned warehouses down on the river. He visits them every week, bringing food and whatever else he can find to help them out. He doesn’t tell anyone where he’s going; he just goes. So we went with him.
The area was literally like a third world country. Rats the size of small dogs scattered in an out of the shadows. It stunk. And being December in New York, with the wind whipping off the river, it was bitterly cold. But the people there loved Bill. He was their friend. He brought them dinners, knew what was going on in their lives and introduced every person we ran into by name.
There was one man in particular that stood out to me. He hadn’t built a shelter like so many of the others, and the frigid wind was misery to him. He was thinly clothed, and he had nowhere to go to get out of the elements. Standing there talking to him, I felt hypocritical wearing my new thick leather jacket. So, I took it off and gave it to him. With a huge smile, he immediately put it on. We left a few minutes later.
In the few years after that, I thought about the man from time to time. It was usually on a really cold day when I didn’t have an adequate jacket. I’m not going to over-spiritualize it and say that I prayed for him with every thought. It was usually something like, "Man, I hope he’s using that coat."
Bill Wilson stopped by the Relevant offices not too long ago. It was the first time I’d seen him in several years. Almost immediately, he asked if I remembered the man I gave my coat to six years ago. I said of course. He said not long after we saw him he lost touch with the man. Then, a week ago, he found his way to Bill’s church. He said he wanted to come back to say thank you for the coat.
It turns out that not long after that encounter six years ago, the man gave his life to God. He’s now married and is living and working in Brooklyn. And he just wanted to say thanks for the coat.
Looking back at bitterly cold day six years ago, I remember feeling so overwhelmed with the need around me I didn’t know what to do. I knew I couldn’t make a significant difference. But I had to do something. I actually felt silly giving the man my coat—I didn’t want to insult him—but I did it anyway. And it turns out that small, seemingly insignificant gesture ended up playing a major role in his life.
This week I’ve been overwhelmed with the realization that God uses us to touch lives even when we don’t realize it. I didn’t honestly think I was "ministering" to the man by giving him my coat. I just saw he was cold, and I wanted to give it to him. But God used that gesture to spark something in his life.
All God asks for is obedience. If we’re faithful to do the things He prompts in us to do—no matter how big or small—then He’ll be faithful to do the rest. Maybe we can’t change the world. But He doesn’t ask us to. He just asks us to be obedient.
This holiday week, sacrifice a little. God has blessed us all so much that there’s no way we deserve it—and no possible way we can repay it. Take the time to give something back and touch lives that are less fortunate. Donate food to a local shelter. Give to your church’s toy drive. Volunteer. Do something.
The jacket didn’t change that man’s life, but God used it to spark something in him, and now six years later his life is turned completely around. Who knows what impact those Christmas gifts made in the lives of those kids. The anonymous donors will never know what difference they may have made, but they saw a need and were obedient to give what they could. If we all do our part, God will do the rest. And countless lives will be changed because of it.
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