The Can Opener

“For the needy shall not always be
Forgotten: the expectation of the
Poor shall not perish forever.”
Psalm 9:18

As I shuffled through the post cards that had arrived by return mail, one in particular caught my eye. Unlike the others listing gift requests for children, this one included a request for Mildred, the mother. She wanted a can opener.

I was angry. “How dare she ask for a gift for herself!” I thought. “We are trying to provide gifts for children, and this mother wants something for herself!”

This was my third year working with Project Angel Tree, a ministry of Prison Fellowship. Every Christmas, Project Angel Tree provided gifts for children who have one or both parents in prison. The gifts were presented in the name of the jailed parent.

Requests for gifts came from the prisoners via their chaplains. Once we received the requests, we contacted the recipient’s guardian to determine their need. For families without phones, we mailed letters explaining the program, asking that they return a card listing requests and sizes.

It was such a card that I held now. Each time I thought of this mother’s selfish request, I got angrier. Not having a clear idea of how to handle this case, I decided to make it a matter of prayer.

As Christmas drew closer, I began to collect the Angel Tree gifts from donors. My living room was packed. There were floor to ceiling, wall to wall boxes ready to be shipped to children who were suffering the loneliness of an absent parent. These children had done no wrong, yet they had to live with the stigma of being an inmate’s child.

Piled across the dining room were shopping bags filled with local deliveries. I browsed through my cards checking off what had been received, and which gifts had been wrapped and packed. The card with the can opener request surfaced, and I stopped to consider it.

We had purchased sweatsuits for Matilda’s children, and had even gotten a remote-control car for the youngest. But a can opener we did not have. I decided that I would explain to Mildred that the gifts were only for the children; adults didn’t get any. She would just have to understand, and learn to be less selfish.

Suddenly, I knew God was going to require more of me. He spoke to my heart, and told me I was the one who was selfish. Who was I to decide whether Mildred needed a can opener? Realizing that the best way to overcome selfishness is to invest in the lives of others, I determined that I would buy the best can opener I could find for Mildred. I didn’t really want to spend the money; it was an act of repentance.

A week before Christmas I made my rounds to almost forty families in the area. Mildred’s home was my last stop.

Bracing myself, I knocked on the door. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was surprised when a bright-smiled, enthusiastic woman opened the door. Finding out who I was, she grabbed me with a big hug. “Oh!” she said. “I have the most wonderful news! My husband is getting out this week, just in time for Christmas. I’m so excited!” She laughed and did a quick-step dance in place.

I handed Mildred the gifts, and emphasizing that we don’t usually give gifts to adults, we did manage to get her a can opener. I felt bitterness creeping over me as I recalled spending $24.95 of my own Christmas budget on Mildred’s can opener.

Mildred clasped her hand to her heart. “You got me the can opener? Oh, thank you!” She told me that her can opener had broken and the only ones she could find in the store cost almost $2.00.

Two dollars? A flood of shame came over me as I realized that Mildred had only wanted a cheap, hand-crank can opener. She was so poor that her $2.00 had to go for necessities. A manual can opener was a luxury.

Feeling embarrassed at my misunderstanding, I explained that we had gotten an electric can opener, and I hoped that would be okay.

Mildred froze momentarily, her jaw dropping. Tears welled up as her shoulders slumped forward. She covered her face with her hands, and began to laugh and cry at the same time. “Oh, you don’t know! You just don’t know,” she cried.

Trying to compose herself, Mildred explained that she had severe arthritis in her hands, and each time she used a can opener she was in pain for an hour or more. Having an electric can opener was more than she ever hoped for.

After leaving Mildred’s home, I thought about my selfishness. This woman was just hoping for a cheap kitchen tool, even though a more expensive one could have relieved her pain. And I had harshly judged her.

I learned a good lesson from Mildred and I realized that each time I work with Angel Tree, I receive far more than I give.

(c) 1983 by Annette (Anna) Glass

Anna Glass coordinates the Christmas Families Program at Joy of All Who Sorrow – a program that provides Christmas meals and gifts for the children of approximately 60 needy families in the Indy area. The program depends on generous donations of new or like-new clothes and toys as well as non-perishable food. Can you help? Contact Anna at before December 17.

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1516 N DELAWARE ST. INDIANAPOLIS, IN, 46202 · (317) 637-1897