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'The Secret Santa' Understood the Real Secret

  • Dave Burchett
  • Published Nov 29, 2007
'The Secret Santa' Understood the Real Secret
Truth can be so annoying. If annoying truth was a Jeopardy category it might look like this…

“I’ll take Annoying Truths for $100, Alex.”
This famous preacher said,  “Give me five minutes with a person’s checkbook, and I will tell you where their heart is.”
“Who is Billy Graham? I’ll take Annoying Truths for $200, Alex.”
This missionary to India said, “You can give without loving. But you cannot love without giving.”
“Who was Amy Carmichael, Alex. I am getting very uncomfortable with this topic so let’s take “Sins that make you worse than me for $100.”

Money is an uncomfortable topic for followers of Jesus. One anonymous writer noted that a lot of people are willing to give God the credit, but not too many are willing to give Him the cash.

Twenty-seven years ago a man in Kansas City made a choice to give away the cash. It was a choice that changed his life and the lives of thousands more. The Associated Press reported that for the next 27 years, a man known only as Secret Santa roamed the streets every December quietly giving people money. He started with $5 and $10 bills. As his fortune grew, so did the gifts. In recent years, Secret Santa handed out $100 bills, sometimes two or three at a time, to people in thrift stores, diners and parking lots. He anonymously gave out about $1.3 million. It was a long-held holiday mystery: Who is the Secret Santa? Last Christmas, weakened from chemotherapy and armed with a desire to pass on his belief in random kindness, Secret Santa decided it was time to reveal his identity.

Larry Stewart, a 58-year-old businessman from the Kansas City suburb of Lee's Summit, Mo., made his millions in cable television and long-distance telephone service. While Stewart also gave money to other community causes in Kansas City and his home town of Bruce, Miss., he offered the simple gifts of cash because it's something people didn’t have to "beg for, get in line for, or apply for."

His epiphany happened just before Christmas in 1979. His circumstances were dire. For the second year in a row he had been fired just days before Christmas. He admits that he was wallowing in self-pity when he learned that giving returned an inexplicable joy. That simple discovery changed him, the entire city of Kansas City, and beyond. Let’s pick up the story as Stewart was nursing his wounds at a drive-in restaurant after getting fired once again. He describes that December day in his own words.

"It was cold and this car hop didn't have on a very big jacket, and I thought to myself, `I think I got it bad. She's out there in this cold making nickels and dimes,"' he said. He gave her $20 and told her to keep the change. "And suddenly I saw her lips begin to tremble and tears begin to flow down her cheeks. She said, `Sir, you have no idea what this means to me."'

Larry Stewart was deeply touched. He decided to go to the bank that day and took out $200, then drove around looking for people who could use a lift. That was his "Christmas present to himself."  He hit the streets each December every year after that Christmas. Last January Larry Stewart died died from complications caused by esophageal cancer. He was only fifty-eight years old.


Even after his passing his mission lives on. Stewart spoke often to community groups about his devotion to kindness and to inspire others to donate their time and money. "That's what we're here for," Stewart says, "to help other people out."

Larry Stewart learned the reality of money and possessions that was eloquently expressed by author Thomas Fuller. “Riches enlarge rather than satisfy appetites.” 

As a follower of Christ I think Stewart has it half right when he notes that we are here to help other people out. The religious scholars asked Jesus what a purpose driven life should look like.

"Teacher, which command in God's Law is the most important?" 
Jesus said, "'Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.' This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: 'Love others as well as you love yourself.' These two commands are pegs; everything in God's Law and the Prophets hangs from them."   (Matthew 22, The Message)

During this Christmas season I am challenging you to join me in trying Larry Stewart’s experiment. Go buy yourself a gadget or outfit or bauble. Note the reading on your personal joy meter. Then go give money to a desperate Mom trying to make ends meet. Or give some cash to an elderly couple who can’t pay the heating bill. Deliver a Christmas gift to children who would not receive gifts any other way. Then see which action has given you real joy. Was it acquiring more stuff or meeting real needs in the lives of others? Larry Stewart learned that lesson. And the world is a better place because of the revelation he experienced on a cold December day twenty-seven years ago.

Pray about what you can give this Christmas. Remember that Larry Stewart started small. I pray that you will receive the kind of joy that drove the Kansas City “Secret Santa” for twenty-seven years. The chance to witness the surprised joy of a person receiving an unexpected and much needed gift. Kind of like salvation, isn’t it? That is the gift that Jesus brought to Bethlehem two millenia ago. And that is another gift we should be eager to share this season.

Dave Burchett is an Emmy Award winning television sports director, author, and Christian speaker. He is the author of When Bad Christians Happen to Good People and Bring'em Back Alive: A Healing Plan for those Wounded by the Church. You can reply by linking through daveburchett.com.

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