As of Friday afternoon, the snapshot of a New York City cop giving a barefoot homeless man a new pair of all-weather boots and thermal socks had received more than half a million likes on the NYPD Facebook page.
Millions more saw the photo as it was picked up by newspapers and TV news. The kindly, aptly named Police Officer Lawrence DePrimo became an instant celebrity. The Arizona tourist who took the picture, Jennifer Foster, appeared in as many media outlets as any movie star. She told reporters that she had been particularly moved by the sight because her father is a cop and as a girl she had watched him kneel the very same way to give food to a homeless man in Phoenix.
With all the commotion over this photo of simple, perfect kindness came an affirmation of a theological precept once proposed by the late Father Mychal Judge, himself widely known as the FDNY chaplain who perished at the World Trade Center. Judge was also an unofficial chaplain to Manhattan’s homeless, able to call many of them by name as he strolled the city in sandaled feet and a friar’s brown habit.
“Hello, William!… Hello, Ralph! … Hello, Peter!” he would say.
His smile was always joined by a few buoying words and a dollar, folded lengthwise because he thought that made it seem less of a handout. He one day summarized his particular theology by inverting the old Irish mantra that God is good.
“Good is God,” Judge said.
What he meant was that just as the devil is to be found in evil, God is to be found in goodness. He further believed that in recognizing the good in others, you strengthen that good and therefore God. He also felt that embracing your own goodness is the way to grace.
After he perished at the World Trade Center, the example of the first responders who died with him inspired others to answer the evil of the attack with whatever goodness they could muster to aid and comfort the survivors. An elderly woman showed up at a police checkpoint with a baggie of ice, saying it was all she had to offer, but she figured it might cool some of the recovery workers.
And if you thought about it, good always seemed to rise in answer to evil. At least six people were shot shielding others with their bodies during the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado. President Obama choked up as he spoke of meeting a young woman who had pressed her fingers against a friend’s bullet wound that otherwise would have been fatal as the shooting went on and on and on.
When nature itself turned deadly with Hurricane Sandy, one Staten Island man rescued more than 200 people, ferrying them to safety one small boatload at a time. Another man whose brother was killed by a falling tree sought and found solace in helping those whose homes had been destroyed. The storm surge had no sooner receded than volunteers and donations began to pour in from seemingly everywhere.
“The hands of God,” said Monsignor John Brown of St. Francis De Sales Church in devastated Rockaway.
Then, on one of the first cold nights of November, we had Officer DePrimo asking a barefoot homeless man in Times Square his shoe size. DePrimo returned from a Sketcher’s store with a $100 pair of size 12 boots along with thermal socks. He demonstrated the added grace of not just handing them to the man, but getting down on one knee to assist him in getting them on, an image of almost biblical resonance gone gritty, scripture according to Mychal.
Once he had the boots on, the man continued along Seventh Avenue and disappeared into the Times Square swirl. The cop resumed patrol, having tucked the receipt for the boots inside his bulletproof vest, a gesture in perfect keeping with Judge’s theology.
Since then, a police source told the New York Daily News that the homeless man is 54-year-old Jeffrey Hillman. The News described Hillman as a petty criminal with 11 arrests for non-violent crimes. The source suggested to the News that Hillman may deliberately go without shoes with the hope of eliciting handouts.
Even if this were true, Judge’s response would no doubt be the one he offered as a youngster, when he gave his only coin to a panhandling drunk and his twin sister, Dympna, asked why he would do that when the man was only going to spend it on drink.
“It doesn’t matter,” Judge said.
On Friday afternoon, the homeless man with new boots was not in immediate evidence in Times Square. The fire truck used by FDNY Ladder 4 happened to rumble past, the names of the fallen from 9/11 inscribed on the side. They included Firefighter Michael Lynch, whose remains had been identified with the help of a slip of paper he was known to carry in his wallet quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition of success.
“To know even one life has breathed easier because you lived …”
Ladder 4 had been the first company on the scene in 2010 when a would-be Jihadi tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square, hoping to kill as many innocents as he could. This same stretch of Seventh Avenue was now also the place where a tourist from Arizona took a snapshot of an act of elemental goodness because it reminded her of a similar deed she had once seen her father perform and had never forgotten.
She sent the photo to the NYPD, and the new social media person at the public information office was inspired to post it on Facebook. The number of likes was still climbing early Friday evening, to nearly 550,000. There were more than 42,000 comments.
“Now, if this would trickle down to every person’s heart,” read the most recent comment, from a man named Brettt Tucker.
A comment moments before came from a woman named Paula Schroth.
“Today, God smiled.”