Nothing is so precious as when someone who has so little gives you so much.
By Thomas Pak
My mother was the original Tiger Mom. In our family, a grade of A- was like a B, and a B was like a D, and as my mother made abundantly clear to my sisters and me, “Pak family never get below B!” In the school orchestra, we had to play First Violin, because “Second Violin no good!”
Needless to say, my mother was not the most understanding or tolerant of the fallible, the unfortunate or the vulnerable. But when I was in college, she converted to Christianity and has been a devoted and long-time member of various Korean Presbyterian churches on Long Island and in Florida for over 30 years. During this time she's done a significant amount of volunteering, particularly assisting elderly Korean immigrants. She also took care of my father over a long, difficult illness before he finally passed to the kingdom of God in 2012.
I think these experiences effected a profound metamorphosis in my mother. She became caring, concerned, even compassionate for the unfortunate and vulnerable. So when I sent her my contribution to Lenten Devotional earlier this year, which was about my service in Fifth Avenue's men's homeless shelter, she replied with the following email:
“I am glad that you seem to do your best in fulfilling the will of God in the circumstances he placed you in. I am also glad you look after the unfortunate and the needy, and not turn away from them. Never lose your heart when hardship comes your way, even when you try to glorify God through your life. Our loving Father and Jesus will always walk with you whenever and wherever you go. With love, Mom.”
So now you see that my mom is not such a bad person after all. And this speaks to the transformational nature of the Christian experience.
For me, much of the transformational aspect of my brief Christian experience has been centered around Outreach. For that, I have mostly to thank my dear wife, Meredith, who, as many of you know, is the head of Outreach Special Events. This makes me the unofficial special assistant to the head of Outreach Special Events. Meredith likes to reserve the glamorous tasks for her close friends—handing out Easter eggs, table hosting, doing arts and crafts with the kids. I often get stuck doing the other tasks—stuffing the Easter eggs, hauling coolers filled with ice to Central Park for the Margaret Shafer Picnic, busing tables at the Joe Vedella dinner.
But for the Shelter Children’s Christmas Party, I get the ultimate glamor role. I get to be the Main Event, the Center of All Kids' Attention, the Big Guy in Red! Yes, I mean Santa Claus.
Some of you understandably may be surprised to learn that I have played Santa for the last several years, because I don’t really look like a Santa. But through happenstance, I came to take up and then grew to relish the role.
What made it easy for me to inhabit the big red suit were the kids themselves. The kids come from a variety of shelters around the city and range in age from preschool to middle school. We provide them with various activities, such as arts and crafts, where they can make Christmas cards and ornaments, and we serve them supper. But they really come for Santa.
In that regard, they are just like kids everywhere—they love Christmas, and they love Santa. Some of the really young ones actually believe I am Santa. But all the kids, even the oldest, want to have their pictures taken with Santa, and most of them want to sit on Santa’s lap (even those who frankly are a bit too old). And they love it when I hand out the presents.
One thing I learned that surprised me is that most of the kids have loving and devoted parents, some of whom accompany them to the party. This was underscored in a special section in the New York Times last week about infants in the city’s homeless shelters, which detailed the huge number of children born into the shelter system. That article was sobering, but what came through were the devotion and love that the parents have for their kids and their fierce determination to get out of the shelter system.
Today (Election Day) reminds us that we live in contentious times—politically, socially, culturally. People in this country have a wide variety of views and attitudes toward the homeless. But we can all agree on one thing: all of us have compassion for homeless children, kids who are utterly without fault, but have suffered so much and have so little.
One of the highlights of the Shelter Family Christmas Party is when the kids make Christmas cards and ornaments. Occasionally, a kid will make something for Santa—for me. Over the years I’ve received several cards and one tree ornament, which we we will hang on our tree in several weeks. The first time this happened, I was taken aback. And it made me realize that nothing is so precious as when someone who has so little gives you so much.
Thomas Pak has been a member of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church since 2013. He offered this testimony during our annual Outreach volunteer event, Feed Your Soul, on Nov. 6, 2018.