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A Bible, a Guitar and a Two-pound Coffee Can

“Are you aware,” the stranger said from the far end of the telephone line, “that your second-grade son is giving away his coin collection?”

No, I responded, but not in surprise. He, like many second-born sons, was a most generous person; a giver, as they say, sent as balance for the many takers in life.

“He gave an uncirculated set of silver coins to my daughter today; I thought you would like to know.”

I thanked her and promised to pursue the matter at the appropriate time.

But it is hard to tell when such a time might be; time to explore with a child the tendencies of his own soul; time to explain to a little boy how his innocent behaviors signify who he is and who he might become.

It was a long time before a similar signal in my sixth-grade life helped me understand my own second-born self, who I was and who I had become.

Like other American boys, I spent a part of my childhood picking up and delivering papers to porches and people all over town. And collecting, of course: 20 cents if paid by the week, 85, if by the month. The former often brought a nickel tip, the latter an extra 15 cents. And with 118 customers, a good day at the end of the month produced pockets full of change, enough to pay the bill and buy a Cherry Coke with a small bag of Spanish peanuts.

In such a happy and prosperous condition, I often took a stool in Wallace’s Drugstore and read the escapades of the mighty men of valor: Spiderman, Superman, Green Lantern and, of course, Thor.

Each Saturday, in pursuit of money and memories, I circumvented the town square: Corn-Austin (men’s clothing), Ward-Elkins (appliances), A.B. Beale Hardware, the Bank of Murray and, around the corner, the shoe repair shop run by Mr. Jones. I knew my people and they knew me.

But one day, the sights and sounds of someone new caught my attention. Across the street and opposite the shops, on the grassy lawn of the courthouse square, a man stood. He held a Bible high above his head and called for sinners to repent. He bent down, picked up a guitar and strummed an old gospel tune; and then sang it, in a strange and haunting sort of way.

Not more than 20 people—myself among them—were drawn to this unscheduled service of preaching, singing and exhortation. I edged between cars and upon the curb, crossed my legs in a space close enough to hear but far enough to stay unseen.

I was accustomed to gospel, Scripture and the evangelist’s plea, but this take-it-to-the-people in a public place stirred my imagination. He preached a little and sang a little, then picked up a can that once held two pounds of Maxwell House Coffee.

“There,” he said, as he sat it under a tree, closer to me than I had wanted it to be. “In a few minutes, we will be moving on down to the road. Please help us with an offering, if you will. God bless you.”

He started to sing. A quarter clanked loudly in the empty can; a nickel here, a dime there, perhaps a dollar or two. It had the makings of an offering as thin as the congregation that had gathered in this makeshift, open-air sanctuary. Not enough, even I surmised, to buy a meal and fill a tank.

It was years before I understood any part of what happened next—before generosity, spontaneity and a deep-seated sympathy for itinerant preachers had taken root in my spirit, and then become matters of introspection; before parents, teachers and pastors of all sorts had shed light on the signals of my own soul.

In less time than it takes to relate this childhood episode, I jumped to my feet, walked to the tree, and emptied into that can every dime, quarter and 50-cent piece, every bit of money that had collected in both pockets of my pants.

I turned and walked away, forgetting the sermon, the song and the familiar blessing spoken somewhere at my back; remembering, these many years, only the clanking sound of a coffee can filling up with coins.

Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.