Homeless man on a Toronto street. Photo by Michael Swan

Angela Saldanha: Beggar’s bread starts bountiful life

By  Angela Saldanha, Guest Columnist
  • December 18, 2018

“The poor you will always have with you.” Prophetic words of Jesus 2,000 years ago. 

The poor are with us still. And, as was the case in Jesus’ day, it’s often those who have the least who are most willing to share. Like the widow in the Gospel who “gave all she had.” Like the beggar in this story told to me by my sister-in-law, about her father, Dick.

As a child Dick was always hungry. His father earned little; his mother struggled to feed the 10 children. Sometimes, ladling out the rice that was their daily fare, she’d say “Dick, I’ll only give you a little bit today — d’you mind? That way I can give more to the little ones. They’re too young to understand.” Dick, the oldest, understood. Knowing how hard it was for his mum, he’d try to smile.

One evening, unable to rest for the painful rumblings of his empty tummy, he crept out of the house and went for a stroll.  A beggar sat by the roadside, munching a piece of bread. He glanced up as the boy approached and Dick stopped to chat. Recognizing the face of hunger, the beggar broke his crust in half and silently offered a piece to the starving boy. Surprised, grateful, ravenous! Dick accepted it. They ate and chatted some more before he went on his way.

A few days later Dick met the beggar again and the same thing happened. The beggar shared his scrap of bread. This became a regular occurrence. It got to the point where whenever the beggar had any food, he’d save a bit in case hungry Dick should come by.

Sometimes Dick would see a man sitting on a bench by the roadside. Just sitting quietly, rosary beads slipping through his fingers, observing the sharing of bread. Dick was struck by the look of compassion on the man’s face. He’d have loved to talk to him, but felt he couldn’t interrupt the prayers.

In church one day he saw a statue; one he’d never really noticed before. The figure looked oddly familiar: brown robe, sandals, rosary ….  He nudged his mother. “Who’s that?” 

“St. Anthony” she replied. She told him all about the saint who’d lived and died 600 years ago and about his love for the poor, how he was still greatly revered. Dick was thoroughly bewildered. Had he seen St. Anthony? 

“Next time I see him, Mum, I’ll come and call you.” But, strangely, the man never appeared again.

All this made a deep impression on his young mind.  The appearance of the saint, the willingness of that thin-as-a-stick beggar to share the morsels he had, got him thinking about all the starving people in India. 

He vowed to himself that when he grew up he’d do all he could to help them.

Knowing that to get a good job he’d need a good education, he studied hard but in Grade 6 had to quit school to help support the family. Being a hard worker and a very bright boy, he picked up things quickly, and moved on to better and better jobs, eventually becoming computer programmer for an American oil company.

His salary was modest, but he managed to stretch it so that in addition to caring for his own family, he was able to feed the beggars. The city of Bangalore teemed with them. The lepers, the blind and the lame, the jobless, luckless, hopeless. All starving. Dick knew what it was to starve. And he’d never forgotten the beggar, or the vision of St. Anthony, who had such compassion for the poor.  Inspired by these memories, he tried to help everyone in need. It was said that every beggar in Bangalore knew him.

At Christmastime, he really outdid himself. He would employ a cook to come to his house and cook up enormous quantities of byriani, an Indian dish of rice and veg or meat. 

Dick’s wife and children would see to it that all the beggars were fed before they themselves ate. The family so enjoyed doing this, they looked forward to the occasion as much as the beggars did.

Dick did this every Christmas until his death in 1988. Every beggar who possibly could attended his funeral. His son had to arrange for two buses to transport them to the cemetery.

And all because long ago, a hungry beggar shared his bread!

(Saldanha is a writer who lives in Brechin, Ont.)

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