O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant ...
It was a chilly December night in downtown Chicago, and about a dozen of us from a suburban Christian college were Christmas caroling. My best friend, Uriel, stood next to me as we sang. A few people stopped to listen.
... O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem, Come and behold him ...
A black man edged closer as we sang. He seemed to eye me, the only African American in our group. His head nodded in rhythm with the melody.
... O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!
"Say, brother," he said, approaching me as the song ended, "would you please help my family? We ain't got no money and my baby needs formula."
He was probably in his 20s, but his tired and ragged appearance made him look much older. "Please, man. I need to get us some food."
I glanced at the others in my group. We knew the safest response was to politely refuse. Yet we were Christians. Weren't we supposed to help needy people?
"Would you please help me?" the plea came again. "Just a few dollars."
I looked at Uriel.
"We can't give you money," we finally said, "but we can buy you what you need." If the guy was telling us the truth, it was something we had to do.
"My name is Jerome," he told us as we hiked toward a nearby convenience store. He lived in a city housing project with his wife and three kids. As we entered the store, I noticed that his eyes seemed to brighten. Maybe we'd brought a little hope into his life.
Soon we'd bought him baby formula, eggs, and milk. This seemed a fitting conclusion to our evening of caroling. As we handed Jerome the groceries and bus fare, I noticed his eyes had darkened into an frightening stare. "You think you better than me, don't you?" he said. "You all think you somethin' 'cause you come out from the suburbs, buyin' food for the po' folks, but you ain't no better than me."
"No ..." I struggled to find more words, but nothing came. I realized there was nothing I could say that would change his mind.
After a moment of awkward silence, Jerome grabbed his bag of groceries and walked away. Then he suddenly turned and said sharply, "Merry Christmas." It was not a warm wish, but a condemning statement filled with broken pride.
The December air blew colder. No one said a word.
There wasn't anything to say. Our holiday spirit had suddenly evaporated, and there was no way to bring it back.
We might have resented Jerome and felt justified. But was he wrong? We gave him a gift. He accepted it. Should there have been anything more?
That's sort of how it was at the first Christmas. Jesus wasn't born a helpless baby for applause. Years later, he didn't hang on the cross for the praise and adulation -- many of those he died for made fun of him. Still, he gave selflessly and unconditionally. So, why had we expected gratitude and warm fuzzies for our gift to Jerome?
Strangely enough, Jerome gave us something far better than another opportunity to feel good about ourselves. He made us look hard at our motives and gave us a sobering lesson on the real reason for giving.
We were expecting a pat on the back. Jerome reminded us of what the true reward of Christmas is all about.
Edward Gilbreath is director of editorial for Urban Ministries Inc., editor of UrbanFaith.com, and the author of Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity.Earlier versions of this article appeared in Christian Reader and Campus Life magazines, and it appears here courtesy of a partnership with UrbanFaith.com.