An encounter with a man in need reminds us to count our fortunes, and do more to help

New Orleans
New Orleans AP Photo

At last, spring unfolded before us like a crisp sheet flicked open in the wind. This always catches me by surprise, how one day the branches of trees scratch the gray sky, but the air warms and peonies pop from the ground and pale green shimmers from the tree tips in waves until the world bursts open.

I know the pollen is brutal and sends everybody to the Kleenex box, but as I sniffle, I head straight to the garden shop to get some green for myself.

It was Holy Week, and I’ve long tried to adhere to the old adage of planting my small tomato crop on Good Friday, if Easter falls in April. So I combined my lunch break with time to pick up a few plants for my pots and yard.

I made a mental list of the plants I planned to buy. Tomato plants, asparagus ferns, petunias, caladiums for the front porch pots. Potting soil, tomato feed. I’m no gardener, but somehow by mid-summer I always have enough tomatoes to make a decent BLT or two.

The week had begun on Palm Sunday, in church. Years ago, my sister and I spent many a Saturday before Palm Sunday in the church kitchen with our friends, making palm crosses. It’s a labor-intensive effort for a large congregation like ours, and now we’re handed long fronds that end up as bookmarks because so few of us can remember how to make the crosses.

Palm Sunday begins with a celebration, as we sing the hosannahs and imagine the procession of Jesus’ followers cheering him as he rides into Jerusalem. Then we hear the passion Gospel and become the crowd that shouts, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” leaving no doubt as to who we are in the story.

Palm Sunday for Christians is a dark day, one that always finds me thinking how the world might have turned out differently, if not for the shout of those crowds.

There is a lot of crowd shouting these days, with the world at a constant fever pitch. I know there is not one thing I can do to stop it, except not join in. Which gets harder every day. During Holy Week especially, I couldn’t help thinking why I’m not trying to squelch the shouting.

I brought the palms strands home and put them in water so they wouldn’t dry out. Later, I searched online for how to make the crosses and spent a good half-hour bending and looping the palms until I had seven of them, a few to mail to my kids in their Easter cards and a couple to keep on my window sill, to remind me that though it’s not, Easter thinking should be every day.

Then on Tuesday, I stood in the middle of the garden shop, spring popping out all around me. I gathered my plants, left them in the loading zone, made my purchase and headed to the car. The parking lot bustled with people pushing carts full of their own version of spring. As I was opening my door, I caught a figure on a bicycle coming toward me.

“I don’t mean to trouble you, ma’am,” said the man, a wiry fellow with gray stubble on his face. He told me his name, but I didn’t catch it, wishing he had not picked me to approach. “I got kicked out of the shelter,” he went on, “not for drinking or drugs or anything like that. They said there had to be a national weather emergency for me to stay there. But the lady there, she called around and she found me another bed at the AME shelter.”

I stood there, listening to him. I rarely give money to pan-handlers, but …

“The thing is,” he said, “the bed costs $12 a night, and they are holding it for me for another half-hour.”

I pulled out some money — change from my lunch — and counted them out. Twelve dollars, exactly. I handed them to the man.

“God bless you, ma’am,” he said. “I will be praying for you.”

He would pray for me.

As I headed back to work, I searched the street for him, but he had disappeared. Later, I found the AME shelter online, where for $12 a night, men can find a clean bed and a hot meal. That $12 meant so little to me that I’d smushed it in my purse, not even thinking. But it took a stranger to teach me that during this holy week, it was actually a fortune.

At home again, I picked up the palm cross I’d made, saying a silent prayer for the stranger in my midst, wondering how to stop the voice in my head that shouted: “Do more.”

Susan Byrum Rountree is director of communications for St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Raleigh. She can be reached at