The day is gray, damp, and chilly. As my car idles at the I-240/Highland exit, I avoid the eyes of the man holding the cardboard sign. Soon, with relief, I'll be easing into traffic. But not before I engage in a battle with myself:
I'll give him five dollars.
And he'll blow it on drugs.
You don't know that.
The hell I don't.
Then I'll buy him a burger.
You have no sense.
I have plenty of sense. You have no heart.
It's a familiar battle that, on any given day, can go either way. More often than not, my "heartless" side wins out. And some days I give it an edge: I simply avoid areas where human beings stand and beg.
Still, it haunts me: the dilemma of what one individual should do when faced with a stranger's plea for help.
For some people, perhaps most, the answer is a no-brainer: "You say no, you move on, you get out of harm's way. Maybe 50 years ago you could give a guy a buck and feel good about it. But today? We're under siege by sickos. Look at the news — the murders, muggings, molestations. Children can't play outside. Women can't leave the house after dark. And the so-called homeless? They're losers, drugheads, crazies! Or con men eager to part fools from their money. Let them get jobs — or lock them up."
For others, the answer is less cynical but just as simplistic. "Don't give the homeless handouts. They'll spend it on something foolish. Send your money to organizations that deal with these people every day."
Each argument holds a solid kernel of truth. People do rob, rape, murder, and commit other unspeakable crimes, and kind souls have been known to pay dearly for good deeds. Charitable organizations do help the needy on a scale an ordinary person could never manage, and thank God for them.
On the other hand, I'm not convinced that the world is more dangerous than it was 50 years ago (nor am I afraid to leave the house after dark). Yes, we see the horror of mass murders and school shootings seldom heard of in 1958, but we also have twice as many people on this planet — more than 6.5 billion now — not to mention round-the-clock news coverage. I think details of one killing spree, one kidnapping, one heinous crime are told and retold so many times on countless news and talk shows that our view of the world — of human nature in general — is warped.
But in some ways, the second argument disturbs me more than the first one. By relinquishing to charities our responsibility to those in need, we sever a vital connection to other human beings.
Don't get me wrong. I've turned away from beggars more times than I can count. I've glared at panhandlers — some of whom are true scam artists — and cursed them under my breath. I've rolled my eyes and muttered when someone in a parking lot gives me a sob story and pleads for gas money. But I have never felt right about my disdainful reaction. As a Christian (usually a poor excuse for one) I'm reminded of Jesus' exhortation to love our neighbor, to care for "the least of these" — the hungry and thirsty, those sick and in prison, the stranger in our midst — and of his commandment, "If a man asks for your shirt, give him your cloak as well." Other religions set forth similar tenets; no doubt their followers find them just as hard to practice.
Should I take these commandments literally? Do I need to give up my day job and become Mother Theresa? I don't think so. I'd make a lousy one. But at times I have heeded Jesus' words, giving a man Gatorade on a blistering day, driving a woman to her job after she'd missed her bus, handing over cash and never knowing where it went. And despite naysayers' dire warnings, I have lived to tell about it.
I also know that giving is a two-way street. A few years ago, in Montgomery, Alabama, my husband and I drove to see his childhood home. The house was long gone, and the neighborhood had "changed." There, at twilight, our car suddenly died. Young men wandered toward us, and our hearts stood still. But soon, with skilled hands and jumper cables, they had us on the road again. I'll never forget the warmth I felt toward those quiet Samaritans and the shame I felt about my unfounded fear.
Okay, the fear was probably natural. But for me, the bottom line is this: When we forever harden our hearts, letting fear or cynicism overrule compassion, when we won't meet the eye of a needy person and feel the bonds that connect us, when we refuse to show kindness to — or accept it from — strangers, then a precious spark will die within us, a spark both human and holy. And we will all be the worse for its passing. M