“Hey, why didn’t you guys give that man money just now?” came the accusing voice from the back seat. “He needed money for food!”
My immediate internal reaction was to recoil in shock: What man? Was there a man panhandling who did not even register with me? Did I just look right through someone? This horrified me until I looked behind us as we drove on and realized that the man Baxter saw was alongside Matt’s window and I had been looking through mine. Phew.
Nonetheless, this was difficult to explain to a 7-year old. We tried to talk about how – rather than handing out money to all of the individuals we pass – we give money to social service organizations that provide food, shelter, and other assistance to people in that man’s position, and also reminded Baxter of the food drives, the mitten trees, and the social justice activities that we participate in through church.
“So…why didn’t you give that man that advice? Why didn’t you stop and tell him to go to one of those places?” he demanded further.
This was more difficult to answer.
She was standing in the dark parking lot when I left the grocery store last night. I didn’t see her until she stepped forward, moving towards me and talking softly but urgently to me.”Please, miss, can you help me?” her eyes were filled with tears. She was embarrassed. “Don’t be afraid of me. Now, my name is Cindy, so if anything happens you know my name. I’m not going to do anything wrong or hurt you. I am a single mother of two children and I need some food for my girls. Last time I tried to steal some in there and they caught me. This time I want to do right. I don’t want to steal food, but we need something to eat.” She repeated her name to me as if handing me the proof of her legitimacy. And maybe she was.
I looked at her. It was unclear whether she had just moments before been kicked out for shoplifting or if this had happened another night. Or ever. “If you go in there tonight, will they let you buy food?” She nodded. I considered the situation. “Okay.”
Extremely protective of my belongings, I carefully extracted the cash I had just gotten at the grocery store and handed it to her without ever removing my wallet or any other contents of my hand bag. She asked if she could give me a hug, and I said “Yes”, knowing full well that this would be the moment the bag could be wrenched from my grasp for good and the gig would be up. But it wasn’t. We hugged tightly and I watched her walk into the grocery store, wondering what she would buy with the money I’d just given her.
Would it truly be food for herself and two children? Would my cash be turned into something else, some substance that might drown her sorrows for another night? Or perhaps she walked into the store and exited out another door with another set of plans in mind altogether.
I’m not ignorant in my compassion. I do spend a lot of my time and we give as much as we can afford to others, but I try to be careful about how I do it. I know I could have accompanied this crying woman into the store and made sure she bought food with the money, but I trusted her somehow and, frankly, that idea felt like adding insult to injury.
This act tonight was not cautious. It was a reckless act. I may well have been conned. But I rely on my intuition and something told me that Cindy – or whomever she was – deserved whatever I could do for her. I wished I could’ve done more in that moment, but a small act of compassion and a big hug were the best I had to offer.
I did it for her, for whatever was going so wrong in her life, and I did it for her kids – real or fictitious.
And I did it for mine.