A Christmas Angel
By Isaac Canales
Dec. 16, 2012
The knock at the door came two days before Christmas. I was 11. We were about to pray for dinner, usually just beans and tortillas. I could see the figure of a huge person through the front-door curtain. In Spanish, Papa said, “Isaac, open the door.”
I pushed my chair away from the table. The shape of the person looked scary. Heads turned quickly as I approached the door. I pulled it open.
There he stood on the front porch. I should mention that Papa was 5 feet 5 inches tall. Mama, 4 feet 11 inches. The man on the porch stood 6-foot-4. By the deep furrows on his face, my young mind guessed he was at least 90 years old.
Two brown-paper shopping bags rested on the porch next to his legs. The bags had sturdy, twisted paper handles. The man’s belongings were pressed down inside, making the bags bulge.
The man’s eyes were closed, his hands raised high over our door, palms outward. Tears ran down his wrinkled face while he prayed. The outside light shined on his flattop. He wore khaki pants, pulled up over his stomach, and wool, red-and-green long johns that poked out from under his sleeves.
Oblivious to us, he kept praying. Finally, he opened his eyes. They were sparkling blue, and moist.
He stepped into our small apartment, there in the housing projects. Removing a red hankie from his pocket, he blew his nose with the sound of a trumpet.
Papa asked him to take a chair and join us for dinner. The man yelled something out loud to my dad and burst into laughter. It was in Italian. Then he told us he was born in a place called Bari, and that his name was Dituri. He said the Lord had told him to get on the Greyhound bus, with only one instruction: I will tell you where to go.
From San Diego, the bus had headed up the Pacific Coast Highway. It stopped at different depots along the way, but an inner voice said, No, not here, at every stop — until ours.
At the Harbor City depot, near the housing projects, the Lord said, Get off here and cross the street. Dituri obeyed, walking all the way to the opposite end of the projects, testing each apartment with prayer.
Finally, he stopped at ours. That’s when we heard the knock. That’s when Papa told me to open the door.
No one could understand what his visit meant unless they knew how poor we were that Christmas.
Papa had just opened our new church. The offerings were very low. This was our first Christmas in the projects. We searched through the garbage bin behind McCoy’s Market, looking for groceries. Papa would park the old station wagon behind the market late at night. We would pile out and begin looking through the bin for bruised fruit, bread and eggs, then take the scraps home to wash them.
Dituri looked around the table, went to the refrigerator, and opened it without permission. Mama stepped aside, wiping her hands on her apron and looking at him with wonder. I could tell that in her mind she was asking, What’s this man doing in my kitchen?
He surveyed the meager holdings in our icebox: a coffee can containing bacon fat, a bottle of milk, a jar of water and a cube of margarine riddled with toast crumbs. He wheeled around and told us to get up.
Dituri then pointed at the door like a great general, and we marched out behind him, leaving our beans cooling on the table. He asked for directions to the market. Papa fired up the old station wagon. Dituri sat in front, moving Mama to the backseat with us. We drove straight to ?McCoy’s Market, past the familiar trash bin to the regular parking lot.
We pulled into a “normal” parking spot, not near that trash bin. Then we all walked behind Papa and Dituri.
Dituri stomped on the rubber pad in front of the glass doors. They opened by themselves. Once inside, Dituri yanked two shopping carts out of the stall and shoved one toward my dad.
He pushed Papa toward Aisle 1, the dairy section. Papa timidly took 1 pound of margarine and gently set it in the bottom of his cart. Dituri hollered with a heavy accent, “Forget the cheap stuff!”
Dituri grabbed the margarine and slammed it back on the shelf. Then he pulled three 1-pound packages of real butter off the shelf and slammed them into Papa’s shopping basket. The wire cart shuddered under the blow.
Then the same thing happened at the ice cream freezer. Papa reached down into the freezer and brought up a half-gallon box of Neapolitan ice milk, the cheapest ice cream substitute in the universe — but a treat to us.
Dituri bellowed in broken Spanish, “No es por mí, hombre, es por tu!” meaning, “It’s not for me, man, it’s for you!”
He threw the ice milk back. It landed like a rock. I was enjoying the scene, especially his method. My dad got the picture. So did I.
We grew bold in faith. I threw in some Twinkies, while Papa picked a real ham. Dituri smiled and said, “Peter Pan peanut butter.” Then he laughed again.
Papa got real Smucker’s jam to go along with it. I thought to myself, This beats commando raids on the trash bin any night!
Following that Christmas, for a little more than a year while Papa got on his feet financially, Dituri ushered us into the market through the front door. He joined our little church. He became Dad’s first deacon, for 11/2 years. He took us to the market like first-class citizens every Friday night. The little church grew, thanks to Dituri.
The day came when Dituri said he would be leaving. We were sad. I was curious about where he lived.
We drove Dituri down into some mountains near San Diego. I remember driving through hills. We stopped in an unpaved cul-de-sac at the end of a canyon. He got out of the old station wagon and unlocked the gates of a chain-link fence. The gates creaked open, dragging on the gravel.
A herd of goats swarmed out, jumping around Dituri as he walked through the trees of an old orchard. There was a tin shack tucked away at the back of the orchard, behind the trees. We waited for him to turn around so we could wave goodbye.
Our car tires turned, crunching gravel. The goats stopped jumping for a moment. Dituri looked back. We waved. Everything grew quiet. He waved back with both hands. We never saw him again.
That Christmas turned out to be one of the best I ever had. Dituri gave me an old pocketknife, which made me feel like a modern Huck Finn. He also gave me my first Bible. It had a zipper around it.
Now 47 years later, I am the pastor of that church my parents pioneered. It is a $20 million facility — the biggest little church in America. We own seven acres of prime property not too far from where Dituri showed up at our door.
Whenever I look out over the acres of cars parked there on Sunday morning, I can almost see Dituri looking down from heaven saying, “Forget the cheap stuff!”
ISAAC CANALES is senior pastor of Mision Ebenezer Family Church (Assemblies of God) in Carson, Calif.
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