Walking up the sidewalk behind the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., I spied the man ambling toward my wife and me, and I braced myself for the oncoming story of his broken down car and how he would only need a few bucks to help him get back home. I had heard it over and over, again and again. If every one were true, I would start to think that I was some kind of fated angel sent to meet distressed travelers whose cars, only moments before, had just sputtered their last gulps of carbon monoxide. So instead, I would much rather he say, Buddy, can you spare… The man was in his thirties, shorter than I, black, and wearing a sweat-stained T-shirt that was hanging out of his pants. He locked eyes with me and caught me a little off guard with a new approach—the plain truth.
“Hey, man,” he began, smiling a genuine smile. “I could use an ice-cold beer right now. Could you help me out?”
My wife and I stopped right there on the pavement. Now perhaps it was because we were in a particularly good mood, as we were about to see Paul McCartney, the cute, albeit graying, ex-Beatle, the composer of Yesterday and Hey Jude, in concert again, plowing through three dozen of his greatest hits, that, returning the man’s smile, I gladly reached in my pocket and pulled out four ones. “Honesty,” I belted. “I can appreciate that!” I continued and jammed the bills in his outstretched palm. “Here you go, my man. I hope it’s one of the best beers you ever had!”
He pocketed the money and told us to enjoy the show, and as he started off he said, “I’m gonna drink to you.”
“Then I have everything,” I answered, ending the kibitzing, and then we continued our trek up the sidewalk to take our place in line.
Now, I know that there are those who will be quick to respond, You’re just making the problem worse, feeding an addiction, etc. Maybe. Or if he had given me some sad story, I could still give him the money and I could sleep better, having chosen to believe that I had provided some wayward soul with adequate bus fare; and right now he’s tucked away safely, full-bellied, in bed, thinking Thank you, citizen as he drifts off. I could. Or better yet, I could have muttered Sorry as my wife and I rushed passed him, staring down at the sidewalk just beyond our feet. And by the time Macca was filling the arena with Hello Goodbye, we all would have forgotten about each other. That’s one way.
But that wasn’t my father’s way.
I used to have the same reservations about whom to give to, how to give, or at least how to assess someone’s need. Once my father and I were out on one of our aimless adventures, walking up a city street to see where it led. Often we let our ’73 Impala decide where we’d go. That day, we drifted into Canton, an old neighborhood pocket a few blocks off the water. As we ambled away from the harbor, looking in storefronts, peering down alleys, watching people, and adjusting to the crisp morning air, a block ahead of us a disheveled man was shuffling toward us. He was unwashed, dressed in a stained, blue down coat, loose fitting jeans, and sneakers that were almost impossible to see that they were once white. His salt and pepper hair was thick and matted and spread straight down his sunken cheeks and around his chin. His skin was darkened and leathered from too much exposure to the sun.
Out of instinct, my father and I tacitly veered toward the curb to give the man a wide birth. But as we veered, so did he. I thought, I know what this bum wants. And I just wanted to get past. I thought, As soon as Dad refuses him we’ll speed ahead to put distance between us. At last his eyes met my father’s and he asked us in a scruffy voice, “Hey, could you spare some change? I really need a drink,” his hand turned upward and out, but to no one in particular. He probably expected to hear his no and to continue walking. My dad stopped and said, “Lemme see,” as he reached under his coat and into his pocket. He pulled out some crumpled ones and placed them into the man’s palm. “Good luck, buddy,” my dad said as we started off. The man said nothing in return and shuffled on.
Once we were out of hearing range of the man, I asked, “Why did you give him money? He actually told you he was going to buy more alcohol with it. Isn’t that just what he doesn’t need? Isn’t that why he’s out here?”
My dad stopped and said, “You missed the point. I don’t want him to drink. And I don’t want to support his drinking. Even though it’s legal. But he seemed like he really needs a drink. I can’t judge that. It’s not my place to judge his need. All I know is that he does need something, and he asked me for help. I didn’t give him a couple of bucks for his drinking…I gave for his need.” And on we walked. It was a lot for my fecund mind to wrestle with. It still is. My instinct is to judge and act accordingly. But my father was able to wrestle through that.
Give to the need.
That sentiment is echoed in Paul’s second letters to the Corinthians 9:7. Paul writes, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Although it is the ending prepositional phrase, “for God loves a cheerful giver,” that too often is thrown out as a verbal balm to those who are coaxed to give and who feel they have given more than they wanted. But it is the beginning of that line that carries the secret of giving, even cheerfully, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart.” Paul is clarifying that giving must be personal, thoughtful, and perhaps not entered into lightly. So perhaps giving will mean more for the givers, as well as the receivers. And maybe, giving can’t be turned on and off so easily, or with a snap judgment.
When my father gave, he gave in the name of Jesus. He gave from his heart. He gave to the need, which, hopefully, helped the man. When that man approached me my father and me on the streets, it would have been quick and easy to dismiss him and continue with our day. And we would have forgotten him by the end of the next block. But what my father recognized in that man was that it could have been any of us, himself even, down on our luck, shuffling along.
When my father and I would set out on an aimless adventure, at an impromptu point A, something always happened that was memorable—a picnic, a street juggler, a fender bender, who knows. And sometimes, we even found hidden treasure. Like a gift. Like a guy asking for some spare change, triggering me to better understand need and my father and God and maybe even myself.