On a Saturday morning in December, I look down from the window of my high-rise apartment in Printers’ Row, a quasi-renaissance neighborhood in the South Loop of Chicago. The temperature outside is zero. Vapors rise from every nook and cranny of the cityscape. The El train creaks and squeals more than usual as it slowly passes on its steel trestle. Pedestrians swaddled in heavy overcoats and scarves lean into the biting wind as they scurry for the warmth of their cars or condos.

To the left, I notice a few men on State Street who are not hurrying anywhere: they are merely standing on the corner, hands in pockets, some without hats, enduring the cold. They are homeless. What do they do on days like today?

All I know is that I’d rather be anywhere today than on Chicago’s frigid streets. But that is exactly where I am headed. I have volunteered to do something I never thought I’d do: stand outside and ring the bell for the Salvation Army. I’m scheduled for five hours—11 to 4. The big chill.

My first image of the Salvation Army comes from when I was six. Outside the entrance to Sears, during the Christmas season, stood a man wearing a uniform. He looked something like a policeman, but he rang a bell while people walked up and put money into a red bucket. Mom told me the money was to help people who didn’t have enough food to eat or clothes to wear. I had never met anyone like that, but I nevertheless enjoyed putting a quarter into the kettle.

As a teenager during the late sixties and early seventies, I, along with millions of other young Americans, developed a strong distaste for all things military—even things that sounded military. I had no idea who the holiday bell-ringers really were, but I certainly didn’t want to give my support to anyone whose name ended in army.

But over the years I have picked up scattered bits of information about the Salvation Army. Adolescent suspicion has been replaced by adult respect.

I learned that the Salvation Army is a Christian organization—a denomination, in fact—which, unlike (for example) the YMCA in this country, had never abandoned its evangelical roots. William Booth founded the group as an evangelistic street ministry in England in 1865. Fifteen years later, George Scott Railton invaded Battery Park in New York City with six “Hallelujah Lassies,” organized street meetings, and opened a storefront outreach in Brooklyn. The first kettles appeared in San Francisco in 1891, when Army Captain Joseph McFee raised funds to provide Christmas dinners for the families of shipwrecked seamen.

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The Army’s unique mix of evangelism and social programs continued throughout this century, with evangelism remaining paramount. The Army still conducts weekly services (complete with invitations to receive Christ) at its community centers all over the country. While community centers act like churches, their distinctive mission is to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the poor and downtrodden.

All of these memories and reflections course through my head as I dress for my Salvation Army shift. I layer myself with two pair of long underwear, jeans, a turtleneck shirt, a heavy sweater, two pair of wool socks, insulated boots, lined gloves, a Gore-tex stocking cap, and finally a down jacket and hood. I can hardly move, but at least I’ll stay warm. I hope.

My assigned post is only ten blocks away, so I walk. Along the way I stop by a nearly bare third-floor office on Monroe Street to pick up my red kettle, sign, a red Salvation Army vest, and a bell. The man is kind and brief, issuing a few simple instructions and telling me when to return the kettle.

“Feel free to take a break whenever you need to, especially in this cold. Just take the kettle with you. And someone will stop by occasionally to make sure everything’s going OK.”

Back on the street, I notice another guy ringing and wave hello. “You from the accounting firm?” he asks. When I say no, he gives me a puzzled look.

A blinking sign over the bank informs me that the temperature has warmed up to 1. Bring out the bermudas. My corner is just outside the main entrance to Marshall Field’s department store at State and Washington Streets. All around the store, shivering shoppers cluster in front of the famous Christmas windows, looking at lavish scenes in which mechanical figurines of elves, Santas, children, animals, and Dickensian characters gesture and dance. Right next to the empty stand that marks my spot is a Salvation Army window, with Santa ringing a bell and children putting money in the red kettle. A perfect location.

A thin man in his fifties walks up and tells me he’s the supervisor for the Loop ringers. “You must be from the accounting firm,” he says.

I explain that I merely called in and volunteered to ring, and was told to go to this corner.

“That’s funny,” he says. “A big firm signed up to handle kettles today, and not a one of them has shown up.”

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“How many ringers do you have altogether?”

On a typical day during the holiday season, he explains, 16 people work the Chicago Loop streets. Nine of them are paid a minimum wage by the Salvation Army; usually they come from one of the Army’s social-service programs or rehabilitation centers. The other seven, the Army hopes, are covered by volunteers—such as the ones who didn’t show up today. I notice that the kettles for paid workers are locked to the stands, while volunteers can remove and carry their own.

On a good day, the 16 downtown kettles can bring in $1,100 or more. I’m told that the corner I stand on is the most lucrative, sometimes grossing more than $200 in an eight-hour day. (The less-busy corners typically collect $65 each.) Counting the suburbs, as many as 175 people per day can be ringing bells in the Chicago area. Across the country, between 15,000 and 16,000 kettles come out for the holidays. Last year the kettles raised nearly $40 million nationwide, providing Christmas assistance to 6.5 million people and funds to continue the Army’s year-round programs.

When the supervisor leaves to check on the other kettles, I realize my time has come: I take a deep breath and start ringing. For some reason, I feel embarrassed. Maybe it’s because I’ve often felt funny when I passed a bell-ringer, thinking he was a street beggar or a member of a strange religious sect.

While I fret about my self-image and how I “come off” in public, a little girl of three or four walks up and drops some change in the kettle. The girl’s mother looks at me with a smile and says, “It was her idea.”

The surge of feeling I experience surprises me. When the next few contributors walk up, I find I can’t speak: They too are children. Perhaps children have the fewest inhibitions to overcome about giving. They don’t crossexamine their motives. They don’t really care how they appear to others, or worry about their social graces. But at this moment I am struck by their free and gracious spirit.

In a matter of minutes, I not only feel relaxed, but I actually begin to enjoy myself. I ring my bell to various cadences, alternating between ding-ding, ding-ding, ding-ding, and the more complex shave-and-a-haircut rhythm: ding-dinga-ding-ding, a-ding-ding. All the while throngs of vapor-breathing shoppers pass by, toting their children wrapped up like packages. Many of them—young and old, rich and poor—pause for a moment to drop a few coins or stuff a few bills into my bucket. Everyone is friendly, especially the children, and their warmth more than compensates for the bitter temperature.

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I notice that many kids take the initiative to nudge their parents and say, “Can I put some money in?” Other times the parents pull out some change and hand it to the child to put in. I cannot help believing those parents are teaching their kids something positive about the value of giving.

Before long I am greeting people and joking with the children. Many of them are so tightly bound in coats and scarves that they look like mini-mummies: I see nothing but two little blue eyes.

“Hi in there!” I say. Some of them are shy, but many laugh and look right at me, unlike most of the adults.

One little girl of about seven walks up and asks, “Why are you standing here?”

“Well, I’m collecting money to give to people who can’t afford to have a nice Christmas, so they can have a nice Christmas, too.”

“You mean poor people?”

“That’s right—poor people.”

“OK,” she says, apparently satisfied, and puts in some change. “Here. Merry Christmas.”

It is shortly after noon. I’ve been here just an hour. On the sidewalk in front of me a TV cameraman appears, along with Lt. Colonel Gary L. Herndon, the divisional commander for the Metropolitan Chicago Division of the Salvation Army. A photo-op, I realize. Herndon, dressed in his Army uniform and a long overcoat, chats on-camera with the reporter while I jingle in the background. When the reporter leaves, Herndon greets me, and we talk for a few minutes.

“I just love doing this,” he says, referring to the many times he’s rung the bell. Throughout our conversation, whenever someone drops money in the kettle, he turns to them and says, “Merry Christmas—God bless you!” Though he has to leave for another appointment, I get the feeling that he’d be happy to hang out here on the corner all day, ringing his bell and mixing with the people.

I’ve gotten over my initial nervousness and moved into downright enjoyment. I hardly even notice the cold, though several passers-by indicate that my mustache is covered with ice. I keep zeroing in on the kids. When a group of them approaches, I call out, “OK, who wants to ring the bell?” Usually several of them jump up and down and yell, “I do! I do!” So I let them take turns, and then their parents give them something for the kettle. Many have trouble forcing the money into the slot because of their heavy mittens.

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At one point I see the familiar face of my wife, Nancy, who brings a cup of hot coffee and a warm muffin, then hurries off to do a little shopping.

Before long I encounter some competition on my corner. An African-American youth in his late teens or early twenties plants a wooden crate on the sidewalk, then stands on it, absolutely still, holding out a paper cup. Not a single muscle of his body moves. At first people glance at him curiously, then walk on. But when someone dares to drop a coin in his cup, he clicks into a series of jerky, robotic motions, ending with a tip of his hat. Then he freezes again, cup extended, until the next customer.

Miffed that he might be stealing potential kettle contributors, I consider asking him to leave. But then I realize that he is actually slowing down the shoppers, perhaps even causing more of them to come my way. Perhaps there’s room on the sidewalk for both of us. Later in the afternoon, he decides to call it quits and picks up his crate to leave. When he passes me, I ask him how his take was. He merely shakes his head and turns away.

By 2 P.M. it has warmed up to 7 degrees. Activity on the streets has heated up as well. A guy hands out flyers promoting the latest movies out on video. A choir of nine well-scrubbed Christians sings carols and passes out tracts. A popcorn wagon opens close by, spreading its warm, buttery aroma, which only draws more people. Crowds are at their peak, and many of them chip in to my red kettle.

Virtually everyone is friendly. The closest thing I see to unfriendly comes from a pair of thirty-something women in fur coats. One of them says to the other, “Go on—put something in.” The other replies, “There you go, you want me to give money to every Tom, Dick, and Harry standing on the street! “Nevertheless, she shoves a bill into the slot indignantly, and they walk away.

Not many people speak to me, but the comments I receive vary widely:

“How many pairs of long underwear are you wearing?”

“Can you tell me how to get to the train station?”

“You know, I gave $75 to the Presbyterians last year. But I’m not really Presbyterian, I’m Unitarian. But it’s not what you believe that matters, it’s what you do.”

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“You’re not from the accounting firm, are you?”

“Which bus do I take to the Museum of Science and Industry?”

“You’re sure brave to be out here today.”

When a dark-haired Italian woman puts in some money, I thank her and say, “Merry Christmas—keep warm!”

“Tell that to my brother,” she blurts out. “I get this call this morning, and he tells me he’s locked himself out of his apartment, and all he’s wearing is his pajama bottoms. So now I gotta pay the cab fare; I gotta get him a new key; I gotta get him back into his apartment again …” She keeps right on talking and waving her arms as she turns to leave.

One young woman marches up, aims an Instamatic camera at me, and fires. Then, without a word, she disappears.

Nance pops by again with more coffee, which I hope will warm my nose and fingertips. Otherwise I still feel comfortable. The supervisor checks in and tells me to knock off at 3:30 because of the cold. Thousands of people continue to choke the streets.

All day I have been watching for demographic patterns in those who give or don’t give, hoping for some telltale insight. But I detect no significant difference in giving by sex, race, or (apparent) economic status. All I notice is that children probably put the most money in—either on their own or prompted by their parents.

Oddly, no one ever asks me where the money goes—even though I have researched the answer. In Chicago, for instance, there is the Harbor Light Center, which provides shelter, medical and dental treatment, legal counsel, and psychiatric help for alcoholics. The Emergency Lodge serves as a haven for poor families suffering from violence, abuse, eviction, or other crises. Two adult rehabilitation centers sponsor a work-therapy program to help men without jobs regain their self-respect and sense of direction. The Front Line Feeding Program serves hundreds of thousands of hot meals to the hungry. Other programs assist prisoners, shut-ins, senior citizens, substance abusers, and the homeless. Children participate in Head Start, camp and music programs. And there are kids’ Christmas parties and gifts.

The Army’s goal is to help the poor and needy, both spiritually and physically. An evangelical—even evangelistic—gospel message accompanies virtually all of their outreaches. (In 1989, the Army recorded 115,325 decisions for Christ—45 percent through social service programs, and 55 percent through their community centers.)

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As the shadows lengthen on the street, I glance at my watch and can hardly believe it’s already 3:30. I’m having such a good time that I don’t want to stop. And so many people are giving that I think, If I stay here 15 more minutes, that could mean another 15 or 20 dollars. But I decide to quit, since the kettle drop-off location will be closing soon.

Just before I leave, a tightly bundled boy of nine or ten walks up with a tattered plastic grocery bag. “Do you have any use for these?” he says, holding the bag open. Inside I see a teddy bear and a coloring book.

“You mean you want to give them to me?” I say, flustered. I don’t see the kid’s parents anywhere. And the supervisor hadn’t told me how to handle anything but money. I consider telling him thanks, but I can’t accept anything that won’t fit in the slot.

But then I think for a moment. “Thank you very much,” I say at last. “I’m sure I can find someone who would love these gifts. I’d be happy to take them.” The little boy smiles and strolls away.

I am the last one to arrive back at the office to drop everything off. The paid ringers sit on folding chairs around the perimeter of the room and smoke. The supervisor thanks me, sticks my kettle in a safe, and locks it. When I hand him the bear and the coloring book, he says, “Sure, we can use those—no problem.” Then everyone stands to leave.

Listening to the conversations in the elevator, I realize that these men aren’t going home to luxury high-rise dwellings. One of them says something about being an alcoholic. Another says he hopes the landlord had turned the heat back on in his building. It occurs to me that it is these people, and others in similar situations, that the money in my kettle goes to help.

As I head south on State Street, back to my cushy apartment, I once again pass those familiar homeless faces in my neighborhood. Perhaps the money I collected will help some of them, too. But then I think, Get serious, Verne-just how much of a difference are you going to make in these people’s lives with a few hours of bell-ringing?

Maybe none, at least not directly. But I have to believe that the bell-ringing of thousands of others like me all across the country will indeed make some kind of difference. Today I realize even a small step in the direction of helping those who really need help is better than no step at all.

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In my four-and-a-half hours of ringing, I probably raised $150. But something else is raised, too: my own faith in human nature. After watching so many people, rich and poor, old and young, joyfully giving even the smallest amount of change to help the needy, I can’t help but think that in spite of all the materialism, decadence, and selfishness in the world, there remains in all of us at least a fragment of the image of a giving God. And it is that fragment that the Salvation Army appeals to, and nurtures, at Christmas and throughout the year.

Verne Becker is a writer, now living near New York City. He is the coauthor, with Thomas Stribling, of Love Broke Through (Zondervan).

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