Erring on the side of compassion

Today the moment we all dread happened to me. In the semi-sketchy parking lot of the downtown library, steps away from the bus station, I got hit up for money. I was in the middle of trying to get both kids and all their accouterments out of the car while making sure that Malachi didn’t run into the middle of the street. A skinny, young, shy, black kid with the absolute quietest voice I have ever listened to approached me and I knew what was coming. “Excuse me, ma’am?  I’m not trying to bother you or nothin’ but I just got out of jail and I’m trying to get somethin’ to eat.”

I used to always say no. I’d shake my head and say “I’m sorry, I don’t have anything,” which 90% of the time was not true. Not once has anyone asked me twice – they just thanked me and walked away. My heart would kick a bit and I’d drive away feeling awkward and a little guilty and mostly just unsure of myself and ready to move on with my day. And I would.

Growing up my Pop would drive people to restaurants and buy them meals and I always really admired that. He didn’t want to feed a drug or alcohol habit but he also didn’t want to leave a hungry person without food in their stomach, so he met the need. Men would thank him, eat a hot meal, and hear the truth about a Jesus who loves them. I’ve known of people who carry McDonald’s gift certificates with them to give to beggars.

Once I heard a story about a man who bought value meals for an entire family of visibly hungry people. The father was so angry he wasn’t given money that he threw it all in the trash while his children cried and asked if that was their dinner and why they couldn’t eat it.

There’s always a risk.

I’ve heard so many Christians talk about “being good stewards.” About how we need to be generous but we also need to be responsible with our money and take care of our families.  About how they didn’t work hard for their money to give it to someone who might “waste” it. I agree we should care for our families, but I disagree that generosity and responsibility are on separate ends of the pendulum.

Where in the Bible does it say to care for the poor as long as we know they aren’t drunk? Where does it say to give food to the hungry as long as we’re sure they have really tried to get a job first? When did God make us responsible for what happens to our money after we let it go? When, in fact, did God ever tell us it is “our” money?

I live in a small town, so it’s easier for me. I don’t walk home from work and pass countless dirty, shoe-less people asking for spare change.  I might get asked for money 3 or 4 times a yearI live in a bubble, and I know it. When Jeremy and I were in Seattle we walked down the “wrong” street and passed about 10 beggars in a block. If I had given something to all of them I wouldn’t have had anything left. I don’t have an answer for the bigger problem.

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But the inability to help everyone does not exonerate us from the responsibility to help someone.  Have you ever read the story of the man throwing star fish back into the sea? The beach was covered with them and left in the sun they would surely die. Someone told him to stop because there were thousands of them and he wasn’t making a difference. “It made a difference to that one,” he said.

At the end of my life, I think it’s far more likely that God would honor any generosity I managed to show than to reprimand me for it. “Well done, my good and faithful servant, except I wish you wouldn’t have given so much money away.” No, just…no.

I do believe in responsibility. I believe that long-term solutions are preferable to short-term ones. I think dependency and the white-savior complex are dangerous and I believe in sustainability and interdependence. I also believe in compassion. And when faced with a difficult choice, one in which there may not even be a right or wrong response, I want to err on the side of grace. I want to err on the side of hope. I want them to see Christ in me, and I have a feeling he wouldn’t tell them he didn’t have any change and then drive away to meet his friends at Starbucks. I’d rather give and hope than hold back and wonder.

I couldn’t very well take the young man to McDonald’s with both my kids and buy him a meal. I didn’t have any gift cards on me. So I gave the young man, who looked the age of my oldest brother, the last 2 dollars of my clothing budget for the month. I smiled at him and said “You’re welcome.” I wish I had said Jesus loved him, that he could be free in his soul like he now was in his body, that I cared about him, but I didn’t say any of that. After I got my kids out of the car I turned to see if he really had walked to the McDonald’s or not.  I saw the choice he made. And you know what?

It really doesn’t matter.