(53) one tiny step

I drove past that homeless couple at the stoplight on 1300 East again tonight. I’ve seen them there a couple times before. I rarely have cash these days, which is a convenient way to “get out of” stopping to give them anything. The light turned green and I turned up the street toward home and drove about a block, all the while with this heavy discomfort pulsing at the back of my mind and in the pit of my stomach. I was literally asking God’s forgiveness for ignoring what felt like maybe the tiniest nudge of His Spirit (hopefully? I am not fully confident that I’m super sensitive to Him, but here’s hoping) when I realized that I could be brave and go back. They were begging just a couple hundred yards from the grocery store where I had just purchased four tomatoes. I guess I could offer to buy them some groceries.

So I turned around. And drove back and parked in the parking lot. And approached this couple and asked if I could buy them some food at the grocery store and what would they like?

They were kind to me, in my bumbling attempts at generosity. They really seemed grateful. I went and bought a basket of food, for once ignoring the prices of things and just buying what seemed useful to me and what they had requested. It felt a little bit extravagant. And at the same time the bare minimum of appropriate giving.

I cannot imagine what it would feel like to be tired and not have a home to go home to. Or what crazy currents of life bring people like this couple to the point of standing at a stoplight holding a sign, asking for handouts. Or what it must feel like to stand there, being ignored, watching eyes turn aside to text messages or odometers or sandwiches, anything to avoid the guilt of acknowledging the blatant injustice humming in the air between the wealth of a vehicle and the poverty of an exposed street corner.

I didn’t ask them about their story. I guess it felt terrifying enough just brushing against such poverty. I’m socialized to be afraid of others taking advantage of me and I think I wanted to hurry off before they had the chance. I’m afraid to open up too much because I didn’t think I had anything else to offer them, even though a moment of fellowship with another human being might have been enough.

Maybe I’m just not brave enough yet to admit that there, but for the grace of God, go I.

I have been reading (more like gobbling up at a tremendous pace) the book 7 by Jen Hatmaker, which is probably part of why I turned around and went back to talk with that couple today. In the midst of her mildly crazy/extreme project to battle a lifestyle of excess, she responds to the common argument that it doesn’t matter what I do, I’m just one person and no one else cares with this quote from Steven Bouma-Prediger:

“If God is really at the center of things and God’s good future is the most certain reality, then the truly realistic course of action is to buck the dominant consequentialist ethic of our age–which says that we should act only if our action will most likely bring about good consequences–and simply, because we are people who embody the virtue of hope, do the right thing…

Our vocation is not contingent on results or the state of the planet. Our calling simply depends on our identity as God’s response-able human image-bearers.”

He’s talking about our responsibility to care for creation, but the idea extends to all kinds of responsible living, including coming to terms with our relative wealth and learning to love our neighbor. The exhortation to “do the right thing” resonates with me and maybe helps me overcome my timidity and fear a little bit.

In conclusion…I do not yet have a nicely tied-up conclusion. This book offers me some good starting places. I feel moderately hopeful and challenged on a somewhat deep level and more intrigued than overwhelmed, which is a good sign.

I’ve always wanted to change the world. Maybe I actually can.

***

P.S. Lest I get carried away being proud of my tiny success in returning to buy groceries for one couple tonight, it should be noted that I bypassed at least one other homeless person who was also standing at the corner of a grocery store parking lot (a different one). His sign said he was a homeless veteran and the thought crossed my mind to stop and give him the frivolous snack food I had purchased to mail to my husband, an active duty military guy who has plenty to eat and a relatively comfortable place to sleep tonight. But I didn’t stop. Or turn around and go back. And since it seems like there are more people begging on street corners here than I remember in any city I’ve lived in thus far, I am certain I failed to notice other similar homeless folks, just in my errand-running today. God forgive me and have mercy on me. I am so not good at this being-like-Jesus-thing yet.

P.P.S. A brief-ish introduction to 7, if you’re interested…

(43) anything helps

 

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…