Ash Wednesday. The first day of Lent. I saw him in a Birmingham supermarket. He was young. Latino. Maybe 11 or 12. He was wandering through the aisles, helping random people.
I have been writing this column for a decade now. Some days it’s a struggle. Some days you can’t find things to write about. Some days you come up dry and resolve to give up and get a job at Old Navy.
Other days, a column falls into your lap. This kid was a gift from the column gods.
I was visiting the supermarket to buy beer and necessities. The kid was in my aisle, helping an elderly woman reach something from the top shelf. I eavesdropped on their conversation.
“You don’t have to help me,” the old lady said. “I’m perfectly capable of reaching this on my own.”
“Please, let me,” the kid said in a pronounced Latino accent. “It would be my pleasure to help you.”
I saw the kid again. This time in the Cheez-It aisle. I was buying Bold Cheddar Cheez-It Grooves. You have not lived until you’ve eaten Bold Cheddar Cheez-It Grooves. The kid was helping someone else. A middle-aged woman. He was lugging the woman’s heavy basket. I was touched.
When the kid passed me, I noticed the ash mark on his forehead. And that’s when I realized today was Ash Wednesday.
I don’t keep up with the traditional church calendar because I did not grow up celebrating many traditionally observed holy days.
Ash Wednesday is a day when millions of Christians around the globe participate in fasting, abstinence and prayer for 40 days until Easter.
Sadly, my family was Southern Baptist. In my religious tradition, we practiced 40 years of uptightness until you got constipated and your preacher ran off to Miami with his secretary.
I followed the boy around the store, taking mental notes.
I saw him in a checkout lane. He was helping an elderly man scan his groceries and bag his items.
I followed the kid out to the parking lot. He was pushing a young mother’s cart, loading her vehicle with bags of groceries.
I waited for the kid to ask the lady for money, but he never did. He God-blessed her and moved on.
In the parking lot, I asked him what he was doing. I asked if he was a Boy Scout or something.
“No,” he said. “I’m helping because today is Lent.”
It is my understanding that Lent is all about “not” doing stuff. Not performing random acts of charity and goodwill.
“Everyone does it in their own way,” he said.
His family is from Guatemala. His parents came to America hitchhiking on a train. They earned their citizenship when they were in their late 20s. Life has been very difficult for them.
His mother cleans with a cleaning crew. His father is a commercial roofer. The kid’s life fell apart when he was only 9. The boy was helping his father with a roofing job when the kid fell off the roof. He broke his neck.
“I knew I would die,” said the boy. “But my mother, she ask God to heal my neck, and God did. God saved me. From that day, my mother say I belong to God, and not me.”
He had a simple innocence about him. The kind of innocence that the world will eventually take away. Although I hope it never steals his.
The kid asked if I needed help with anything. I said no, I was fine. I asked him what the ash stood for on his forehead.
“I don’t really know,” he said. “But I know it’s something my family does every year, and I know it’s something very good.”
Works for me.