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.
Is your relationship with God a transaction? I would be lying if I didn’t say that I find myself praying more when my wallet becomes conspicuously light. Altogether, this reliance on God for support is a positive experience. This level of intimacy with our creator entails a great deal of faith. Since we are only human, the ability to rely on the creator of the universe for support and favor in times of need is a blessing and vital in progressing with your walk with God. However, this intimacy can be a double-edged sword. What is supposed to be a relationship focused on exploring God’s love in its entirety can sometimes become consumed by a desire for more and more favor, status, wealth, and so on. Prayer becomes a routine, tithe and offering become an obligation and not a willful donation, even reading the Bible can seem pointless when one is doing it solely to curry favor with God and not for personal fulfillment. In a sense, when our relationship with God is consumed by a need for greater and greater status, trying to live as an example of Christ’s love becomes hard because we are not operating from a place of love. We are operating from a place of ego. Our relationship with God has stopped progressing because, in essence, when you approach God with the desire for your own self-aggrandizement then the person receiving recognition and acclaim is you, not God.
An area in my own life where I often find myself commodifying is the area of charity and sacrifice. I find myself giving both time and financial support to charitable causes with stipulations, clauses, and addendums to God about what I want out of this act of service. If I could tithe enough then maybe God will open this door or If I go to church every Sunday and stay for both services then maybe God will give me a new car. I find myself striking little bargains like this anytime I feel pushed to give more than what’s convenient. It took me a long time to realize that the reason that it was so hard for me to sacrifice was because I was looking at sacrifice entirely incorrectly.
Sacrifice is not a transaction, it is an exercise. Like all exercises, it has a purpose. Prayer, Bible study, worship, these are experiences that illuminate our personal relationship with Christ. Sacrifice, however, differs simply because it extends that relationship into the physical world. Sacrifice is meant to be used to stretch our trust in God as a provider while also providing an example to the world of the complete love found in Christ. In this sense, sacrifice and charity become necessary mediums through which we can deepen our relationship to God. Trying to consistently live charitably might seem like a huge leap of faith, but the secret is that you have already taken it. In Matthew 6: 25-30 KJV Jesus says the following during his famous Sermon on the Mount:
“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink…Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?…So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin…Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”
As Christians, everything that is given to us is a blessing from God. The pool from which you draw your charity is filled by Him to begin with. Everything from the fruits of your labor to your next breath comes due to God’s grace and favor. If this is true, is charity not just returning to God what was already his to begin with? Furthermore, this means that once we sacrifice, God is still providing. Does this mean that you should give everything you have to charity and join the nearest monastery? No, of course not. However, it does mean that each person should seekGod to determine what sacrifice means to them. A perfect example of what biblical charity looks like also comes once again from Jesus in Luke 21:1-4. In chapter 21, Jesus sits examining the happenings of the Temple grounds when he notices a beggar woman place two little copper coins into the offering box. He gets up, walks over to the lady and tells her that she has given the most out of anyone at the temple. Despite the wealthy patrons filling the offering box with large gold coins, the reason that she had given the most was because she gave from a place of love, not obligation. Jesus specifically notes that she has given all that she had to live on. While this is commendable, the true value of her sacrifice comes from the personal impact of it, not necessarily the amount of money. Another example is the near sacrifice of Isaac at the hands of Abraham. What is being sacrificed in this story is not necessarily Isaac, but Abrahams allegiance and reliance on the physical world . By sacrificing his son, Abraham sent a message to God acknowledging both his complete trust in the Lord and his acceptance of the fact that everything in his life came through the grace of God.
Sacrifice is misunderstood and often neglected due to its immediate and obvious inconvenience. However, it may just be one of the most important commands we are given as Christians even as just an exercise of trust. Sacrifice is much more than simple charity, it allows us to practice certain aspects of our faith that routinely go unexplored. In order to be exposed fully to the character of God, sacrifice is necessary. In order to more fully embody Christ, we must give. On top of that, it is something you can do now. It is never too late to give to someone and spread some of Christ’s love here on Earth.
Did you know that right here in our country 1.7 million children have a mother or father serving time in prison? Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree is the largest national ministry to reach out to the children of inmates and their families with the love of Christ. By connecting incarcerated parents with their children through the delivery of gifts at Christmas, Angel Tree helps brighten the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. The ministry depends on volunteer and donor support, and this year the need his great, as more than 14,000 children on the Angel Tree list are in need of people to step in to donate the funds necessary to provide gifts for these kids. See the list below for a breakdown of the top 25 counties and states that are still in crucial need of donor help.
Think about it: If all of UrbanFaith’s reader’s were to make a small donation of $12.58 on the day after Thanksgiving as part of their “Black Friday” shopping spree, we could wipe out a large portion of the numbers below. Help us share the the true meaning of Christmas with these kids and their parents by making a donation.
For more information, visit AngelTree.org or call 1-800-206-9764.
NEVER FORGET: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama observed a moment of silence this morning on the South Lawn of the White House to mark the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/Newscom)
By the time more than a decade has gone by, most national calamities have faded intohistory, events to be marked but no longer acted upon. It’s different with 9/11.
The Islamic terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, still influence the United States’ politics, animate its military and fill its travelers with rage and chills. After sweeping commemorations on the 10th anniversary, the expressions of sadness and soul-searching have barely receded on the 11th anniversary today.
The occasion continues to challenge the nation.
The big challenge remains to be united, not divided, by the tragedy.
One way to use the moment as an inspiration for better things is to follow the suggestion of a Newport Beach-based group to make each Sept. 11 “a day of charitable service and doing good deeds.” The nonprofit organization MyGoodDeed promotes the idea, and says millions of Americans participate each year.
The roots of 9/11 Day are nonpartisan. It has been supported by President George W. Bush and President Obama, and its founders, David Paine and Jay Winuk, were spurred by the loss of Winuk’s brother Glenn, an attorney and volunteer firefighter who was among the 3,000 people killed in the World Trade Center.
The website 911day.org has information, including how to sign up for local volunteer efforts (which don’t necessarily require volunteers to be available today).
For the families who lost loved ones, the memory of 9/11 is acute every day, and they deserve special consideration on the anniversaries.
With that in mind, the directors of the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum decided that this year’s ceremonies at the site of the World Trade Center would not include speeches by politicians but instead would feature only a reading of victims’ names by relatives.
Naturally, the effort to rid the largest 9/11 commemoration of politics has drawn charges that the organizers are playing politics in retaliation for some New York-area elected officials’ criticism of the memorial foundation.
This points up the difficulty of unlinking 9/11 and politics.
While that memory no longer dominates voters’ thoughts, a poll showed 37 percent of voters still consider terrorism and security to be “extremely important” issues in the presidential election, not too far behind the 54 percent who give the economy and jobs such marquee billing.
Thus, earlier today Obama participated in a memorial service at the Pentagon and held a moment of silence at the White House. Mitt Romney will speak at the annual conference of the National Guard. The tug of war over the legacy of 9/11 continues.
The attacks can hardly be compared with any other national tragedy and scandal. But it is worth noting that the direct and emotional effects of many historical events had passed by the 11th year after. Think of the resonance of the John F. Kennedy assassination by 1974, the Watergate scandal by 1985, or the Challenger shuttle explosion by 1997.
Sept. 11, 2001, though, continues to reverberate on Sept. 11, 2012. It continues to move and challenge Americans. For those motivated to rise above the politics of the moment, calls to service such as 9/11 Day offer a way.
Reprinted from The Los Angeles Daily News, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. Used by permission of Newscom.
HARRY BELFAFONTE: “They have turned their back on social responsibility,” opined the activist and actor about today’s black celebrities. (Photo: David Shankbone/Wikipedia)
Harry Belafonte is a legendary entertainer, known for his iconic performances in films like Carmen Jones, Buck and the Preacher, and Calypso. And who can forget his award-winning “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)”? However, in a long and distinguished career, Belafonte’s greatest accomplishments arguably may be his involvement with the civil rights movement.
During the ’50s and ’60s, Belafonte was one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s biggest supporters and endorsers. He fully believed in the message and movement that King worked so tirelessly to establish. Belafonte provided financial support for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council (SNCC), and he also participated in several rallies and protests alongside King. Still a civic-minded crusader today at age 85, he continues to live his life as an outspoken activist for social justice and equality.
Belafonte has never been one to shy away from social commentary or hold his tongue in conversation. He has been known for his honest comments and straightforward critiques about politics, show business, and society.
In an interview last week with the Hollywood Reporter, when asked whether or not he was happy with the images of minorities portrayed in Hollywood, he caused a stir by calling out two famous black celebrities by name. “I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities,” Belafonte began. “But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay-Zand Beyoncé, for example.”
JAY-Z AND BEYONCE: Is it fair to compare the altruism and social involvement of today’s stars to those of the civil rights era? (Photo: Ivan Nikolov/WENN/Newscom)
Belafonte believes that industry heavyweights like Jay-Z and Beyoncé have a social responsibility to be outspoken regarding issues of race, prejudice, and civil injustices, mainly because they have the social influence and public platform to do so. Janelle Harris at Essence echoed those sentiments. “There’s been an ugly dumbing down when it comes to acknowledging and addressing pertinent issues, even having empathy for and interest in what’s impacting our community. It’s an attitude of detachment,” she said.
She added: “I agree with Harry Belafonte. I think young people could be doing more. Twenty, thirty, forty-somethings. It’s not just the celebrities, though they’re certainly part of the vanguard for making philanthropy and activism cool, which is unfortunately necessary for some folks to get involved.”
Jay-Z and Beyoncé are definitely the closest thing the black community has to pop-culture royalty today. The hip-hop power couple topped Forbes list this year as the world’s highest-paid celebrity duo, raking in a staggering $78 million. But are they giving back?
Guardian columnist Tricia Rose wonders as much. She writes, “It is undeniable that today’s top black artists and celebrities have the greatest leverage, power, visibility and global influence of any period. It is also true that few speak openly, regularly and publicly on behalf of social justice. Most remain remarkably quiet about the conditions that the majority of black people face.”
Many celebrities often take on a non-controversial role or use their celebrity indirectly as a fundraising tool, rather than taking an overt stance to engage civically. Rose continues to say that her previous statement is not intended to, “discount their philanthropic efforts,” but to raise awareness. And Belafonte’s lament illuminates a fundamental shift in black popular culture.
“As black artists have gone mainstream, their traditional role has shifted. No longer the presumed cultural voice of the black collective social justice, it is now heavily embedded in mass cultural products controlled by the biggest conglomerates in the world,” says Rose.
FREEDOM FIGHTERS: Belafonte (center) with fellow actors Sidney Poitier (left) and Charlton Heston at the historic civil rights March on Washington, D.C., in 1963.
Rose notes that individuals like Belafonte willfully sacrificed their safety and lives by marching with civil rights protesters under threat of police violence. His commitment and contributions are rare among modern superstars.
She adds: “In the history of black culture popular music and art has played an extraordinary role in keeping the spirit alive under duress, challenging discrimination and writing the soundtrack to freedom movements.” Visionaries like Paul Robeson, Lorraine Hansberry, and Nina Simone are a few that Rose believes understood that responsibility and made a conscious effort to better society through both their art and fame.
As for Beyoncé, the singer’s representatives did respond to Belafonte’s charge by citing a litany of the singer’s charitable acts, including funding of inner-city outreaches in her hometown of Houston, as well as donations to hurricane relief efforts in the Gulf Coast and humanitarian campaigns following the Haiti earthquake.
In fairness to Beyoncé and Jay-Z, it is not for any of us to judge how they use their money, nor to pressure them into being more generous than they already are. What’s more, the issues in today’s society are quite different than they were during the civil rights era. So, it might be unfair to impose those kinds of expectations on today’s African American celebrities.
Still, it’s hard not to feel that we do need more influential people with Belafonte’s mindset to help us reenergize the black community. His contributions over the course of his career have changed the world for the better and have proven that entertainers can be important difference makers for change and justice.