A Test Of Compassion 1923

January 07, 1996

They probably were the worst-looking "tramps" that ever trod a wintry street in Baltimore. The fat snowflakes that made such beautiful bouquets and necklaces for the park shrubs and trees only melted soppily on their unpleasant rags.

A big brass safety pin tried pitifully hard to hide a great rent in one's coat pocket; it only gave the rag a fantastic loop. Their overlarge trousers draped them in sodden folds and were patched. Their shoes were too big or ripped at the toes; one wore tennis shoes of canvas and rubber. Their necks were grimy, hair unkempt, hands and fingers unwashed.

At the front doors of the four churches they stoped and looked around uneasily. There were warm lights in the high stained-glass windows. Organs hummed with easy majesty, swelling more loudly as massive doors swung open and the people passed in.

Queer looks shot at them

Good Baltimore people going to church. Heavy overcoats, soft, deep furs and gloves kept the cold, the snow and the slush away from them. They shot queer looks at the men in rags standing in front of their churches.

Then the men in rags, nervously twisting their caps, glanced about fearfully, went up to the church steps and entered.

Ragged "tramps" don't go to Sunday morning church in Baltimore - usually. No one's mind is attuned to the idea. The usher's clothes and manners are gauged to fit his congregation. The congregation's clothes and manners are cut to fit each other's eyes and ideals.

These four ragged men began finding that out as soon as the first ushers turned and saw them, halting, wavering at the head of the aisle. Then - but read their own stories.

First Presbyterian Church

It was an Old Homestead setting - snow-covered ground and a mixture of heavy snowflakes and light rain falling. A brownstone church, brightly [See Churches, 6e] illuminated, lighting the rose-colored window over the center of three entrances and stained-glass windows telling the story of the miracles of the Bible. Limousines drew up to the door and the fur-enveloped women and fashionably-dressed men alighted, mingling with other worshipers coming from four directions and entering the First Presbyterian Church.

None noticed a disheveled individual standing near the curb. He might have been a derelict, an outcast of society. A faded and worn gray cap on nis unkempt head, in need of a shave, a coat worn and torn, and trousers of another color patched. As the first strains of a processional were intoned by the organ, the "tramp" slowly entered the vestibule of the church. Three ushers stood near the center door.

"Say bo," said the "tramp," "can a guy go to church here?"

Three ushers looked at the "tramp" in surprise. They had not expected this apparition. A young usher stepped to the "tramp."

"Good morning old fellow," he said, taking the "tramp" by the hand. "I'm sorry there's not a seat on the first floor, but Dr. Henry Van Dyke - did you ever hear of him? - is preaching here this morning and there is a large congregation. I'm sure we can find a place for you in the gallery."

Not afraid of the dirty coat-sleeve, the usher placed his hand on the tramp's arm and then locked his arm in that of the "bum." In this way the "tramp" was led up the winding steps to the rear of the gallery adjacent to the choir loft. A large number of people were standing. The usher paid no attention to these.

Asks people to move for 'bum'

He went to the end of the long pews and asked everyone to move up. Space was made for the "tramp," who reached his seat as the Rev. Dr. Alfred H. Barr, pastor of the church, read an extract from the Bible. Several persons nearby turned and scrutinized the "tramp." His head was bowed in prayer, but his eyes were watching those about him. All stood to sing another hymn and those in the pew made more room.

A young man about 20 years old, florid, clean and of the "prep" school variety sat on the other side of the "tramp." Dr. Barr led in prayer and the friendly usher went down the aisle with the collection plate. On the plate were bills and large silver pieces. The "tramp" fumbled in his pocket. He had no money. Dr. Barr had just prayed: "Give peace to those who are in want, to those who have sinned, to those who seek the charity of God." The "prep" schoolboy watched the "tramp" as he searched his pockets for a coin.

"Won't you let me help you?" the youth said. "I suppose I have a little more than you. Please take this."

The youth's face was flushed. His eyes were kindly as the "tramp" looked in the palm of the youth's outstretched hand and saw a dime. Taking the dime the "tramp" placed it on the plate. The usher was pleased. He looked at the "tramp," hesitated, looked at the plate and passed by smiling.

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