I took exit 226 on the way home the other evening. A guy, not much older than me, with a beard and a nice face, was standing on the side of the exit ramp, near the stoplight, holding a cardboard sign with “Anything Helps” printed in bold letters. The light was red, so I had time to fish a few dollar bills out of my wallet. He saw me rolling down my window as the light turned green. The cars in front of me briskly moved into the intersection, I paused to hand him a few folded bills — $3, to be exact, even though I still had another $5 bill in my wallet. He thanked me and I said “God bless you!” in an unnaturally cheery tone before scooting along into the intersection. The entire interchange lasted no more than a couple moments.
And then I thought about it all the way home.
When I wrote a list of things I hoped to accomplish by 2018 (at the time, this was 10 years away), I wrote: “I hope I’ve figured out how to help those people who beg at traffic lights.” And out of that short list of about 20 goals, this is the one that continues to nag me. I haven’t figured it out. Perhaps I’m closer now that I’ve unofficially decided to just give them cash if I have it and if the light allows and if they look nice and not creepy. Mostly I’ve made this unofficial decision to avoid the guilt that yanks at me for far too long after passing by an opportunity to give away a few dollars.
What I don’t know is if it’s true: Does “anything” help? What can a person really do with $3? That won’t even buy a gallon of gas or a pack of cigarettes, if that’s what these people are wanting. It might buy a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk, so I guess that’s something. Maybe they write that “Anything Helps” so that we won’t be afraid to contribute $3, if that’s what we have, trusting that if five people give them $3, they will be able to put some gas in their car or buy cough syrup for a croupy child. And when you only have $3 or $15, what do you do with it? What are your priorities on such a limited budget?
I think I’ve also made that unofficial decision to just give a bit when I can because taking action to help another person seems more right than sitting back and formulating a lot of judgements about them. I am sure that if I am generous, someone will someday take advantage of me. Until I take the time to politely interrupt Mr. Anything Help’s panhandling off exit 226 and introduce myself, I will have no idea where my few dollars are going. He might be hoping to pay a utility bill, put gas in a car, fill a prescription, bring home a few grocery items for a family, care for a sick relative. He might also be planning to buy cigarettes, beer, marijuana, or other drugs. He might panhandle part of the year and live off of our donations in a fancy Californian condo the other half of the year. He might be suffering a string of bad luck. He might choose to panhandle because he makes more than minimum wage doing it. He might be partly to blame for his present situation. I’ve often withheld a donation, paralyzed by the unknown, by these questions.
But really, who am I to judge? I still have five years to “figure out how to help those people who beg at the traffic lights.” Maybe I should do more research, because I am certain there are lots of ideas out there for helping these people. As I open myself up to these people through generosity, I am also opening to the reality that someone will take advantage of me and my generosity. But why is that such a fearsome reality? I think I would prefer to err with excessive generosity on the side of “love your neighbor” (Mark 12:31) and “with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38), rather than on the side of excessive judgement and fear.
Five years of thinking about this and that’s all I’ve figured out so far? Apparently I need to work a little harder at this…