Growing up in San Antonio always meant feasting on tamales, Mexican rice and pinto beans on Christmas Eve. It was as much a family tradition as going to church, singing carols and unwrapping presents.
My mother would start preparing our Christmas Eve meal days ahead of time, and each member of my family took turns helping to wash, chop and stir together ingredients. What this meal lacked in formality was made-up for in comfort and taste because it was prepared from scratch and with lots of love. (And lots of guacamole!)
One year we cooked the traditional meal for our extended family members coming to visit, but they canceled at the last minute, leaving us with a lot of extra food. Instead of wasting it, we packed it up in a large foil pan and drove downtown, hoping to find someone who needed a hot meal.
A golden sunset gave way to frigid winter dusk, and soon we found a group of homeless men crouching under the Josephine Street Bridge. I remember them staring out at us from under sleeping bags and plastic tarps as our car pulled up next to the curb. Their suspicious looks turned hopeful when my mother cranked down the window and explained what we had for them.
I was elected delivery boy, so I reluctantly got out of the car and made my way toward the men with warm helpings of our family feast. As I moved closer to them, the uneasiness inside me turned to a deeply humbling satisfaction that is still hard to understand or describe, the feeling of warmth and joy that comes from helping someone in need. I will never forget the look of gratitude on their worn faces as I made eye contact with the men when I handed them the pan and said, “Merry Christmas.”
This is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood. Tears well up every time I recall it — just as they are now — maybe because it’s my earliest memory of serving someone in need. And on Christmas Eve! I have no idea what happened after that food delivery, what my dad’s sermon was about or what gifts I unwrapped. All I remember was standing under that bridge offering hope to strangers.
I’ve repeated similar exchanges over the years, handing out blankets, food and tennis shoes. With each kind deed the same warmth and satisfaction returns, and I am reminded how blessed I am to be in a position to help.
To be able to say, “I will go” and “I will give.” Opportunities are everywhere.
This story first originally appeared in The Point, Fall 2013 edition.