It had been a long day. Not long because I had crammed one activity after another into a very small window of time, but long in the tangible way I had felt every hour pass. Even though I arrived late to pick up my son from track practice, his older brother and I ended up having to wait for him to come out of the building. As he opened the van door, pitched his backpack into the van, and hopped onto the seat, I skipped my customary “Hi, how was your day” greeting. My mind was too harried to bother with perfunctory courtesies.
I swerved into the exit lane of the school driveway, but just then a man walking alongside a bicycle stepped into the crosswalk. He appeared to be talking to himself. At the precise moment when my car stopped to wait for him to pass, he turned and saw me. Now he was coming back toward the van. Oh no, not today, I thought. But yes, today was the day, and it has now become to me an act of mercy and life-altering grace that I will never forget.
I rolled down my window, lowered the radio volume so he wouldn’t hear the Christian music playing, and fixed my face with an impassive look that I hoped would indicate an absence of hostility but also a need to finish quickly whatever our interaction would be.
When he came to the window, I was expecting him to start explaining what he needed. But instead, he handed me a piece of notepaper that I could see was about half full of writing. As I started to read, he began saying something that I couldn’t quite make out, but I could tell he was probably hearing impaired. His note basically related that he was new in town, didn’t have a place to stay, had no friends or family in the area, and hadn’t eaten in three days. He concluded with a simple request for money to buy food.
Now that I’ve had time to reflect on the experience, I realize that should have been my first clue that something unexpected was about to happen. Even with all his apparent needs—without a home, physical and perhaps cognitive impairments, hunger, no family—he had narrowed his request down to one thing: I’m hungry. Can you help me get some food? I see this now for what it was: raw humility.
I looked up from the note and explained that I didn’t have any cash. Usually I at least have some loose change in my ashtray or the well in the driver side door, but not today. So being satisfied that I had dispatched my obligation as best I could, I apologized for being unable to help and began rolling my window back up. Unlike other people in his situation I’ve met before, he didn’t look angry, nor did he become aggressive. He took the note back from me, smiled, and started walking back in the direction he was originally going.
As I pulled out onto the road, I said to my sons, “I really need to start carrying some cash so I can help when situations like this come up.” They both mumbled, “Yeah,” and I could hear in their voices that surly cynicism people get when they hear someone say something that they knew would quickly be forgotten. They were right. I had said this before.
But this time it felt different.
Continuing in the vein of my day, I started mentally processing what had just happened. Unsolicited, I heard and felt God’s whisper in my heart, saying, “You don’t have any cash, but you can still give him something to eat.”
Duh, of course … I did have my debit card! In a flash, it hit me with such intensity that it came bursting out of my mouth without me really intending it to. “Hey, I have a card!” I shouted.
Now my sons were energized too. They both sat up straighter in their seats and started looking for a place we could stop and buy our stranger something to eat. At the same time, we all spotted the Burger King to our left. In my new excitement and haste to rectify my original un-helpfulness, I swung the van into the turn lane and practically skidded into the BK drive-thru line. We were all thinking the same thing: we needed to hurry because he might not be in the near vicinity for too long. My sons both started yelling things we could order, and we settled on grilled chicken, fries, and a sprite. We figured if he hadn’t eaten in three days, his stomach might be sensitive, so grilled rather than fried seemed to fit the bill. I also was price conscious because my own finances were pretty slim.
After we ordered and paid, we started looking for him. Panic began to rise as we scanned the street in front of us and the sidewalk on both sides and didn’t see him.
“There he is!”
My younger son spotted him in the parking lot of a corner convenience store where he appeared to be talking with another driver about his plight. I made a half u-turn into the store parking lot and pulled up beside our friend. When he shifted on his feet to face us, I could see on his face a flicker of recognition, but just shy of familiarity. My older son was closest to him, so I handed the bag of food to him and he reached out the window. A look of sheer surprise spread over the man’s face. Clearly he couldn’t believe we were back. My son handed him the bag, and tears welled up in the man’s eyes.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you so much, and God bless you,” the man said. We blessed him back and pulled off.
I knew what had just happened, but I also knew something else had happened. That simple hand-off of food had ushered something “other” into our midst. A hush fell over all three of us, and my spirit bore witness that the interior of my van had been transformed into holy ground. The presence of God was overwhelming. Tears started running down my face, and I saw that my younger son was struggling to hold back the tears that sat pooled right behind his eyelids. Finally he said, “Gosh, he was so grateful … poor guy.”
I heard what my son said, but I also heard someone else speaking: “Whatever you do to the least of these, you’ve done it unto Me. Thanks for feeding Me when I was hungry.” Then again: “When you give to the poor, you lend to the Lord. Thanks for the loan; I’ll pay you back.”
I was speechless. On a day when I felt the burden of so much of my own need, and was almost near the edge of panic about my own money situation, the Lord Himself visited my little tribe and gave us an opportunity to see Him, and to be blessed not just by Him but with Him. God was there as real as I’ve ever experienced Him. I saw Him in the man’s unashamed humility, his open gratitude, his peaceful demeanor despite what had to be a grinding existence, and his ready forgiveness of my earlier rejection. This man may indeed be a pauper by earthly standards, but he was just as sure a prince by eternal standards. In that simple act of obedience, I had received so much more than I had given.
Since my meeting him that day, now more than a month ago, I have thought of him every day and prayed for him when I thought to do it. He makes me wonder how many times, in our harried and distracted living, we miss the opportunity to see Jesus because we don’t recognize Him when we see Him.
Our cities and urban areas are full with people who need to be fed, clothed, comforted. But I believe we pass Him by because of the “distressing disguise” in which he appears to us. Run-down tenements, trash-strewn alleys, and overrun housing projects are not usually our idea of heavenly places. But heaven is where Jesus is, and I think maybe He’s waiting for us to realize that truth.
I almost wish I could see my hungry friend again, just so I could thank him. Through his humanity and his need, he gave me a glimpse of Someone I desperately needed to see. He gave me the opportunity of a lifetime.
O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant …
It was a chilly December night in downtown Chicago, and about a dozen of us from a suburban Christian college were Christmas caroling. My best friend, Uriel, stood next to me as we sang. A few people stopped to listen.
… O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem, Come and behold him …
A black man edged closer as we sang. He seemed to eye me, the only African American in our group. His head nodded in rhythm with the melody.
… O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!
“Say, brother,” he said, approaching me as the song ended, “would you please help my family? We ain’t got no money and my baby needs formula.”
He was probably in his 20s, but his tired and ragged appearance made him look much older. “Please, man. I need to get us some food.”
I glanced at the others in my group. We knew the safest response was to politely refuse. Yet we were Christians. Weren’t we supposed to help needy people?
“Would you please help me?” the plea came again. “Just a few dollars.”
I looked at Uriel.
“We can’t give you money,” we finally said, “but we can buy you what you need.” If the guy was telling us the truth, it was something we had to do.
“My name is Jerome,” he told us as we hiked toward a nearby convenience store. He lived in a city housing project with his wife and three kids. As we entered the store, I noticed that his eyes seemed to brighten. Maybe we’d brought a little hope into his life.
Soon we’d bought him baby formula, eggs, and milk. This seemed a fitting conclusion to our evening of caroling.
As we handed Jerome the groceries and bus fare, I noticed his eyes had darkened into an frightening stare. “You think you better than me, don’t you?” he said. “You all think you somethin’ ’cause you come out from the suburbs, buyin’ food for the po’ folks, but you ain’t no better than me.”
“No …” I struggled to find more words, but nothing came. I realized there was nothing I could say that would change his mind.
After a moment of awkward silence, Jerome grabbed his bag of groceries and walked away. Then he suddenly turned and said sharply, “Merry Christmas.” It was not a warm wish, but a condemning statement filled with broken pride.
The December air blew colder. No one said a word.
There wasn’t anything to say. Our holiday spirit had suddenly evaporated, and there was no way to bring it back.
We might have resented Jerome and felt justified. But was he wrong? We gave him a gift. He accepted it. Should there have been anything more?
That’s sort of how it was at the first Christmas. Jesus wasn’t born a helpless baby for applause. Years later, he didn’t hang on the cross for the praise and adulation — many of those he died for made fun of him. Still, he gave selflessly and unconditionally. So, why had we expected gratitude and warm fuzzies for our gift to Jerome?
Strangely enough, Jerome gave us something far better than another opportunity to feel good about ourselves. He made us look hard at our motives and gave us a sobering lesson on the real reason for giving.
We were expecting a pat on the back. Jerome reminded us of what the true reward of Christmas is all about.
Panhandlers and beggars seem to bombard us in the city. They wash our windshields at stoplights and then come to our windows expecting payment. They cling to ragtag cardboard signs and approach us with forlorn faces. Some are missing limbs. They sit in wheelchairs holding dirty cups. Some are in obvious need. We can tell by looking in their eyes that they truly are blind or hungry or ill.
What should we do?
As the leader of a large organization that specializes in ministry among the homeless, let me give you my expert opinion: I don’t know!
I think God gives us these dilemmas to cause us to rely on the compassion of Christ he has implanted in our hearts. Coming face to face with someone who asks us for money is an opportunity to be led by the Holy Spirit, instead of being driven by guilt or obligation or the desire to bolster our own ego as a “generous person.” There is no simple answer.
Jesus said in Luke 6:30 that we are to give to everyone who asks of us. Most of us are hesitant to do that because we are afraid that we will be taken advantage of. Perhaps the recipient of our charity will use our hard-earned cash for booze or drugs. Surely giving to someone who would use our money for those purposes would not be in anyone’s best interest, would it? Yet, the directive is clear. We are to give without question and without judgment.
While we don’t want to contribute to someone’s addiction, it is helpful to understand that people who are living on the street usually do not have access to appropriate pain medicine, mental health counseling, or the gentle pacifiers such as chocolate and ice cream that we turn to when we need a lift. Who are we to judge them for how they spend money? I certainly have not always made the best decisions with the money that God sends my way. Yet God keeps giving to me.
On the other hand, our gifts do not always have to be cash. I urge people to give financial gifts to organizations that specialize in wise care for the under-resourced — like Sunshine Gospel Ministries, Circle Urban Ministries, or my own Breakthrough Ministries — and then get involved by volunteering to help those ministries. Then, when asked for cash, we can respond like Peter and John did when confronted by the crippled beggar. “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3:1-10).
A financial gift to a mission or an organization that provides opportunities for the homeless will help men and women who have been crippled by life get back on their feet and — in the name of Jesus Christ — walk a new walk. As stewards of the resources God entrusts to us, we want to make sure our gifts to the poor are invested wisely.
Instead of giving cash to people on the street, we can give directions, or perhaps a ride, to the nearest ministry that provides loving care in the name of Christ. Like the Good Samaritan that Jesus described in Luke 10, we can transport those who are battered and broken to the nearest rehab center and pay for their rehabilitation.
I have a friend who always gives people exactly what they ask for. If they ask for change, he gives them change. If they ask for a couple of dollars, he gives them a couple of dollars. He says that in the grand scheme of things, considering his budget for giving to the poor, the amount of money he hands out is actually relatively small. He thinks we make a bigger deal of being taken advantage of than we should. After all, Jesus let himself be stripped, beaten, and hung on a cross unjustly to show his great love. It is not likely that we will ever experience that much injustice in our giving to the poor.
The June 13th entry in Oswald Chambers’s great My Utmost for His Highest reads, “Never make a principle out of your experience; let God be as original with other people as He is with you.” So, again, we are asked to let the Spirit guide our practices when we come face to face with someone asking us for money.
One thing I am quite certain about is this: When I stand before God in the judgment, I don’t think he is going to drill me about how smart and frugal I was when I was face to face with someone who asked me for money. I doubt that God will point out how proud he is of me that I didn’t let myself get scammed by someone who was lying to get a few bucks out of me.
God is more likely to say something like this: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…. I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”