I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the “poor” and how to serve them – as we are called to do and should do.
It seems the more I pray about it and think about the more I desire to do something tangible to help the “poor” in a more direct way – not just sending money here and there. (I know I sound like a broken record.)
But how? How do I – a simple wife and mother – do this while also protecting my family? How do I help them see their blessings and not take their life – so easy comparatively – for granted, and without destroying their innocence or putting them in physical danger? They, and all of us, really have no idea how good they have it. And it’s not because we buy them lots of fancy stuff or give them everything they want.
I’ve had a few incidences in the recent months that have given me great pause in regards to serving those in need…while also protecting myself and family.
The first one happened after I was leaving church a few months back. My mom and I and the kids were the last ones to leave after morning Mass and we were chatting outside before heading to our cars to go on with the rest of the day. A woman came out from in the church. I thought maybe she was wondering what time Mass was at – another couple had just driven by asking the same question. She looked ‘normal’ enough at first so I asked if she needed help with anything. She proceeded to tell me some sob story that involved drinking or a party or something from the night before that somehow ended up with her stuck on this side of town with no gas in her car and she just needed a little cash to get home. As she talked a strong alcohol smell wafted from her with a strong mix of cigarette smoke to go along. I started to feel uneasy and felt conflicted between wanting to help her and wanting to get her away from my mom and kids. I took her to the church office to see if they could give her a gift card to the gas station (that they keep for these situations) but forgot they were all gone due to it being a holiday. I didn’t have cash with me and didn’t feel comfortable, now alone with her, getting my wallet out to see what else I could do for her. Long story short, I called our pastor and he came and helped her and she was on her way (suddenly her car worked just fine). But I haven’t forgotten her. The memory of that day pokes at me like a scratchy tag in the back of my pants. I wonder about her, pray for her, and can’t help but feel like maybe I should have tried to help more. I could have driven over to the gas station and paid for her gas. But I was scared.
That was a few months ago now but, like I said, it has stayed fresh on my mind. Last weekend, I was driving out of the local shopping center in the nicer part of town. There was a man standing by the entrance holding up a sign, “Homeless, Jobless, will work for Food”, or something to that effect. Seeing him reminded me of another time, years ago, when I was driving down the highway and saw a man walking down the shoulder with a similar sign and in a similar ‘state. (Grungy but not terribly scary-looking.) I saw him, said a prayer to ask God to help him, and then, suddenly I felt my hand go up to bless the man, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” as I drove by him. The man saw me do this, and he nodded in an appreciative way and that was it. It was strange to me because I hadn’t consciously thought of doing this; it was almost as i I had done this but not of my own accord. Who knows how it happened but that incident stuck with me also and so ever since then, whenever I drive by “that guy on the corner holding up the ‘Will work for Food’ sign”, I bless him. But I always wonder if this is “enough”? It it “enough” to just pray for them and go on with our comfortable lives? Was it enough when I tossed a quarter into the empty cup of a homeless woman as I walked along a busy sidewalk (with a baby on my back and one in a stroller) while vacationing in New York?
But this time last weekend was different. I saw that man standing there and he was close enough to reach out and touch. I suddenly had a thought that sending him a blessing wasn’t “good enough”. I went ahead and drove on by but couldn’t shake the thought and wondered – is this from God? So I turned around into the Panera parking lot and prayed. “Angel, I don’t know what to do? Should I try and help this man somehow? I’m scared.” I got out, went into the Panera and asked to buy a gift card – usually a very simple order. But for whatever reason, the computer froze up and they couldn’t get it to work. They tried over and over a few times and it just wouldn’t work. Hmmm. Finally it did work and I got the card, praying still that God would guide me and protect me if this idea to give the homeless man this gift card was from Him or not. I walked out to where the man had been standing.
He was gone.
Ok, then. I guess not, God??
And then, – yes there’s more – the very next day, I picked up the kids from school and we drove over to QT to fill the van up on gas. I was about the get back in the car and a little boy – about 11 or 12 maybe – walked up to me and said, “Hello” in a very sweet and polite manner. “How are you doing today?” he casually asked.
“….Fine….do you need some help?” I hesitantly replied looking around to see who else was around.
“No, I’m ok. Would you like to buy some tamales?” He offered up his bag for me to catch a whiff of their sweet smell that immediately brought me back to the place of my birth and parts of my childhood.
I was caught. “Hmm, where is your mom and dad? Do you need help?” I wanted to make sure he was alright. He assured me he was with his grandparents and that he was ok. I told him he really needed to go into the store and ask their permission, that it wasn’t right to do it this way. I was about the get in the car and then remembered my Panera card I’d bought for the homeless man was still in there. I quickly asked him if he was hungry and might like a Panera card.
“What’s Panera?” he innocently asked.
My heart sank. I suddenly felt absolutely ridiculous for even asking him. I said nevermind, he asked if I wanted any tamales again and I said thank you but no, not today and told him to go back to his grandparents.
I don’t know.
I grew up listening to horror stories about what terrible things could happen to me and to watch out for people. In Mexico, it’s completely normal to be waiting at a stop sign and suddenly hear banging on your window and look over and see children – your own age – holding up a box of chiclets and asking if you’d like to buy some…or a concha or a pretty flower for the pretty lady or a pretty hand-made bracelet. Before you can say no, suddenly someone is washing your window for you. Oh that’s nice, you think, until they hold out their open hand. I couldn’t ever help them. I learned to look away and ignore them. My own abuelito had been taken out of his car, beaten, and robbed because the car stopped a little too long at a crossing and his door was unlocked. There were too many to help. Just keep going.
I obeyed. But I hated it. Still do. Those faces of the children begging and holding out their hands. The women sitting on the sides of the streets with their beautiful hand-made purses that put any store-bought or ‘runway’ totes to shame. The man with the beautiful hand-painted plates and ceramics. Their faces, those memories, they haunted me and scared me. Now, as an adult, I think of those people, I think of the ones in the stories I just shared from my own “nice part of town” and my heart is filled with compassion. I love these people.
I want to help but the experiences and ‘stories’ I grew up with scare me and put me on guard. I want to believe in the good in people, want to ‘trust’ them more and give them the benefit of the doubt. But my heart has been hardened. I’m jaded.
Has God allowed those people to intersect with my life- the lady asking for gas $, the homeless man, the boy selling tamales – to reach out and help? And did I fail Him because I was too scared? Not trusting enough?
I’m not sure. I think about what if I would have helped those people? Would they have taken advantage of me? Taken my wallet, beaten me or worse, stolen my van with all the kids inside? Possibly. Very possibly, in fact if you read all the stories out there.
But what if they didn’t do that? What if, what if?