There was a much more relaxed air around my community as the holiday season closed and the new year began, but I was still in a hurry as I exited the drugstore with my purchases. I barely glanced at the young, able bodied man in clean clothes that sat on the bench outside. As he called out to me for spare change, I said my usual, “No, not today” and kept walking hurriedly to my car. As I drove to the next store on my list, I kept thinking that we are seeing more people asking for money in our suburban community and how hard it is to say no in person(even as I contribute to charities). I validated my refusal in my mind by thinking that he wasn’t asking for food, and he seemed perfectly capable and mentally coherent.
As I pulled my car into an open spot in front of my next destination, I realized too late that I had picked the wrong place to park. A woman was leaving with a disgusted look on her face and gestured to the sidewalk. There was a large, older, disheveled black man with dreadlocks pacing the sidewalk in front of me. He was mumbling, and he had his hand out. As I exited the car, he called out, “Please, can you help me get something to eat?” Again, I automatically said, “No” and walked behind my car so I didn’t have to walk by him as I walked into the store.
As I shopped, I was really bothered as I thought about that man. I had just turned down a man asking for money because he hadn’t asked to eat…and now, moments later, I was confronted by a man asking for the one thing I said I would not turn down a request for…it seemed like my resolve (and my compassion) was being tested.
I walked out of the store and the man was still there-now sitting on the planter bench staring at the sidewalk bleakly. He looked up when he heard me approach, but didn’t say anything since he seemed to recognize me as having turned him down before. I drove away feeling disgusted, not at him-but at myself.
As my stomach and my mind churned, I spotted a hamburger place, and before I could change my mind, I pulled into the drive through and ordered hamburgers and a coffee. I drove back, not sure if I wanted him to be there or not, but there he was-sitting in the same spot with his head down and staring at the sidewalk. He didn’t even look up as I walked tentatively up to him. I put the food next to him on the bench and said, “I brought you something to eat, sir”. He raised his head and looked me directly in the eye and said, “Thank you, ma’am” in a very courteous, almost southern gentleman voice. He looked at the food while I walked back to the car. I sat in the car and watched as he opened the bag and pulled out the coffee and hamburgers. He slowly added creamer and sugar to his coffee. As he sipped the hot drink, his face, previously creased in agitation, smoothed out, and he appeared to sigh. Except for the dirty, torn clothes and disheveled hair, he could have been any middle aged man sitting outside enjoying a snack in the fresh air.
He was gone when I drove by again, and I haven’t seen him since, but I find myself pausing in that area when I drive by and saying a silent prayer for that homeless man-and all the other people around the world that find themselves hungry and dependent on strangers to notice.