A couple of days ago I was loading groceries into my car when I was approached by a large and intimidating looking man who mumbled something to me. He was rather gruff and did not speak distinctly, so I didn’t know what he said. He repeated himself and held out an ID card with his picture on it, but no address. I still couldn’t understand him and was embarrassed to ask him to repeat what he said once again. The third time was not the charm, and I finally said, “I don’t think so,” hoping that would answer whatever he had asked. He sighed heavily, like he was talking to an idiot (and I sort of felt like one at that point), looked me right in the eye, and gruffly but distinctly said, “Will you buy a homeless man a meal?” He said it like a challenge.
I checked my purse. “I don’t usually carry cash, but I have four dollars. I hope that will help.” His whole demeanor changed. For the first time in our rather odd conversation, he smiled and asked me how my day was. He told me he was going across the street where some fast food places were so he could get something to eat and the four dollars would work out fine. Then he thanked me and headed off.
Was he really homeless? He looked like he was, but I really don’t know. Could he have been scamming me? Maybe, but my instincts tell me he wasn’t. What about all the people on the street corners holding up signs that say they they are out of work and need a hand-out? Do I give to every one of them? No, I don’t, but I do give to some of them. I take stock of their appearance and the looks on their faces and make the best judgment I can, but I try to err in their favor. After awhile, you learn to recognize the desperate look of the truly needy.
I wasn’t always like this. Some years ago an assembly program came to the middle school where I worked. It was called “Rachel’s Challenge.” Rachel Scott was the first teen killed at Columbine during that tragic day in Colorado in 1999. Rachel had been a kind and loving child, and the story of her life and entries from her diary were such a powerful testament to what caring can do in people’s lives, especially the outcasts and the broken, that Rachel’s father developed an assembly program to take into schools all over the country, to challenge kids to stop bullying and to be kinder to each other. The program was powerful, and the children were convicted. Many of them cried.
But it wasn’t just the children who were touched. One of the stories that was told about Rachel was when she was working at a sandwich shop. A homeless woman came in, and Rachel thought she looked hungry. She was going to make her a sandwich, but she changed her mind. Then another woman came into the shop, noticed the homeless woman, and bought her a meal. Rachel felt she had missed an opportunity. When the homeless woman left, she forgot her gloves. Rachel held onto them, hoping she would return, but she never did. Rachel kept the gloves on her dresser to remind her never to hesitate to help someone again.
Rachel’s challenge has always stayed with me. I don’t want to miss an opportunity to help someone in need, though I’m sure I’ve been had sometimes. How do you know? Does it really matter?