My husband and I were approached, separately, by two different men this week who were asking for work, money, food...help.
The first guy came to our door, offering any maintenance work for cash. His car was in the shop, and his family was hungry. We didn't need any work done, but my husband gave the stranger the cash he had in his pocket.
After my husband shut the door, we second-guessed that decision. I had just made a wonderful pasta dish, and we had plenty. Should we try to catch him and give him the remaining rigatoni? Could we have come up with some work for the guy? Was he telling us the truth? Did he even have a car? Or a family?
The standard thinking is to not give cash handouts, but direct people to a soup kitchen, or a shelter. I go back and forth in my mind. To help, or not to help...and what kind of help?
I agonized for awhile, wondering if we'd done the right thing.
Yesterday I was loading my trunk with groceries when a disheveled man appeared as I turned from the back of my car. He took me by surprise, and my first feeling was one of unease. I had parked far from the store entrance (it was the pre-Thanksgiving rush) and my instinct was to just get in the car. He immediately spoke.
"Hello, ma'am. I'm homeless and hungry, and I wonder if you could spare any money. Just anything would be helpful."
"I'm sorry," I said, but kindly. "I can't help you at this time." I rarely carry cash and didn't have any. I closed the trunk and moved to the driver's door.
"OK," he said. "God bless you."
"You too," I replied and got in the car. I locked the doors and started the engine. The man ambled away. I watched for a minute or two while he headed toward the store entrance. With no money, what would he do inside the store?
I sat conflicted. Immediately felt guilty. I had a car load of food, I could have handed him a banana, or the bag of whole grain crackers. Something. I should have, I should have, I thought.
It was much clearer after the fact.
And my reply to his "God bless you" was ludicrous.
Yes, God bless you while I drive away in my PT Cruiser with 4 bags of groceries.
I looked around for him, but he was gone, and another car was waiting on my space.
I drove home, feeling terrible. I never think fast enough in these situations. I always feel unprepared and a bit wary. People, especially women, have disappeared when pausing to talk to a stranger.
This incident happened during the day, though. People were around, but not close. If things had gotten dicey, I could have hit the panic button on my key ring (I've certainly hit it enough by mistake.) I wish I felt less self-concerned in situations like this. I wish my husband had been with me. I wish I would have given the guy some food.
At home, unloading the groceries, I felt very burdened by my lack of sharing. My stocked refrigerator has more than enough for two people...
At Mass that evening, I prayed for the disheveled man. I prayed that the next person he approached would be generous and brave. I wanted someone to fill in the opportunity I had missed.
During Mass, I was reminded of some things:
Number 1: I will never know the heart of any stranger who approaches me for help. But God knows.
Number 2: If I give to a con man, God will sort that out on the con man's end.
Number 3: Scripture tells us the poor will always be with us, even in the best of economic times. Therefore, more opportunities will be coming for me to make a different choice.
The homeless and the needy and poor can incite all kinds of political discussions, but I can't fault anybody for giving or not giving. In the span of a few days, my husband and I had done both. Circumstances probably have to be weighed with every incident. In one, we were home together; in the other, I was out alone. One was evening; one was daytime.
I hesitated to write about our encounters this week, because I wish I'd made a different choice, but I'm hoping to get some feedback on what others do when approached by someone claiming they are in need. How do you resolve it in your mind?
Needless to say, this Thanksgiving week, I am reminded how blessed I am to have everything I have. I am also reminded that it all pretty much belongs to God anyway.