As a not-for-profit organization, the Church Health Center has relied on the support of our community from Day One. It’s simple, but it’s true: we cannot do what we do without relying on charitable contributions. Read: we need money to keep our doors open. Whether those gifts come from the young or the old, they all make a difference.
But money is more than just cash. Behind every dollar we receive is a story and an opportunity to learn about the nature of generosity. This past Christmas, I met a little boy who elected to give the Church Health Center the money he otherwise would have received from his grandmother. This reminded me that generosity and kindness are not limited to a certain age group.
Early in our ministry’s history, I learned a fundamental lesson about generosity that I’ve carried with me ever since.
It was late in the day on December 23. I was our only doctor on duty that day, but since everyone wanted to be well for Christmas, the waiting room was bursting at the seams. I had already seen over 40 patients that day when our front desk receptionist, Kim, called me with an urgent request. She told me that there was a homeless man at the front desk who was insisting on seeing “Scott.”
I asked Kim, “Does he have an appointment?”
“No, I don’t remember him from before, and his name is not in the computer. He just keeps saying he needs to see you.”
This impromptu visit could not have occurred at a worse time, but rather than going to the next patient, I went out to see him. He was standing at the front desk hovering over Kim. If nothing else, I needed to get him away from her, or so I thought. He was wearing old blue jeans and a plaid shirt. He had not shaven in several days. When he saw my white coat he turned to me and said abruptly, “Are you Scott?”
“Yes, sir, I am. How can I help you?”
“Can we go in the back?”
I had no idea what he wanted, but I did not think he was dangerous. I led him into the lab, the only room that didn’t have patients at the time. He told me his name. It meant nothing to me. He then handed me an envelope.
“I hear you do good work. If I ever hear my name associated with you, you will never hear from me again. Understand?”
I was bewildered: what was he talking about? He reached to shake hands again and turning to leave said, “Merry Christmas.”
That was it.
When he walked out, the nurse gave me the look of “Don’t you know there are patients waiting?” The whole encounter had taken less than five minutes, so I thought I had time to look at the envelope he handed me.
I found enclosed a personal check for $100,000. At that point, it was almost one-third of the Church Health Center’s budget. I hurried to Kim and asked her if she had learned anything more about our mysterious visitor.
“No, he just wanted to see you, so I treated him like another patient. I was as nice as I knew to be. He seemed like a lot of our homeless guys, so I tried to be a little gentler.”
Of course she did; that was Kim.
That night, I could only think of Kim treating the man like another homeless man. For all she still knew, that was what he was.
The next day, after a few phone calls, I learned that our Christmas visitor was not Howard Hughes, but he had a reputation for eccentricity in Memphis almost the same as the famed aviator. I was also told that he had made other anonymous gifts and he was serious about things staying that way.
Over the next ten years, either he or one of his sons would always show up to drop off the check the week before Christmas. These exchanges were always without fanfare or conversation. One year, I drove to his house with a small present and I tried to tell him about everything happening in our ministry. If he cared, it wasn’t obvious.
Then one Christmas, the check didn’t come. And that was it. I reached out to him in a variety of ways to thank him for his gifts, but he has never responded. I am confident I did not break the trust we had.
But I do know that his unexpected generosity made it crystal clear that every homeless man is to be treated like he is about to hand us a check. Not because of the money, but because of the lesson his generosity taught me. What if Kim had told him that I was too busy to see him? Or if she just told him to take a seat? Or if I had just responded that it was too much to talk to him right then?
Everyone who walks through our front door should be treated as though their value is greater than we could ever imagine. We begin with that assumption, and then from there we do the best we can.