Christmas Blog Series: Generosity

Dec 16th 2013

For 27 years, a man known only as Secret Santa roamed the city streets of our nation every December quietly giving people money. Most often he was found in Kansas City, but in 2001, after the terrorist attacks, he went to New York. In 2002, he was in Washington, D.C., in the neighborhoods victimized by the serial snipers. In 2003, it was a San Diego devastated by wildfires. In 2004 and 2005, it was neighborhoods devastated by hurricanes in Florida and Mississippi.

He started with $5 and $10 bills. But as his fortune grew, so did the gifts. In recent years, Secret Santa was handing out $100 bills, sometimes two or three at a time, to people in thrift stores, diners and parking lots. Through 27 years of Decembers, he gave away over $1.3 million.

About six years ago, he found out he had cancer, weakened from chemotherapy and armed with a desire to pass on his belief in random kindness, Secret Santa decided it was time to reveal his identity. Larry Stewart, grew up in poverty, raised by elderly grandparents, who lived on $33 a month. They heated water on the stove for baths and used an outhouse. After he left home and college, he found himself out of work in 1971. After sleeping in his car for eight nights and not eating for two days, Stewart went to the Dixie Diner in Houston, Miss., and ordered breakfast. When the bill came, he acted as if he’d lost his wallet. The diner owner came to him. “You must have dropped this,” the owner said, slipping a $20 bill into the young man’s hand. 

He paid, pushed his car to the gas station, and left town. But on his way out of town, he prayed a promise. He said, “Thank you Lord and if you ever put me in a position to help other people I will do it.” In 1977 the company he started failed. “I was a failure in business. I was a failure as a husband and as a father,” he remembers thinking. He got into his car with a handgun and thought about robbing a store. But he stopped, went home and got a call from his brother-in-law, offering him money to tide him over.

In 1979, for the 2nd year in a row he was fired just days before Christmas, and in his own words, “I was wallowing in self-pity when I learned that giving returned an inexplicable joy. I was at a food drive-in the day I got fired, nursing my wounds. It was cold and this car hop didn’t have on a very big jacket, and I thought to myself, `I think I got it bad. She’s out there in this cold making nickels and dimes.’ I gave her $20 and told her to keep the change.  And suddenly I saw her lips begin to tremble and tears begin to flow down her cheeks. She said, `Sir, you have no idea what this means to me.”‘

Stewart was deeply touched. He went to the bank that day, took out $200 and drove around looking for people who could use a lift. That was his “Christmas present to himself.” Eventually, he started another company, became a financial success and gave millions to worthy non-profits, but Christmas was always his special time. Every December after that Christmas in 1979, he hit the streets visiting coin laundries, thrift stores, barbershops and diners. “If you’re driving through a parking lot, for example,” he once said, “and you see a lady trying to stuff five kids into an old beat-up rusty car, then it’s a no-brainer.”  

Why does he do it? What does he get out of it? “I see the smiles and looks of hopelessness turn to looks of hope in an instant,” he says. “After all, isn’t that what we were put here on Earth for, to help one another?” Before he started this role as a Secret Santa, Stewart says, “I had not found my purpose. Part of my daily prayer was, ‘Lord lift me up and let me be a better witness to you and for you and somehow reach more people.’ I had no idea this is what He had in mind.” 

I want to challenge you to take the Larry Stewart challenge. Look for an opportunity to give $2o or more to someone that you see in need.  Now go out and buy something for yourself.  Which act brings you the most joy? That act is near to the heart of Christmas.