I don’t normally go to the other end of town. It’s not that I’m avoiding the area, it’s just that I have everything I need at my end—why drive an extra half hour?
Those at the other end of town tend to earn less money (with some notable exceptions). School districts have lower test scores and parents are busy just trying to make ends meet—they don’t have as much time or energy for getting involved in their children’s education. Many residents are newcomers to our country, and do not yet speak English. The streets aren’t dangerous, although the crime rate is higher there. Neighborhoods are full of families. During the day, children play in front yards and ride their bikes on the sidewalks. But you probably should think twice about walking alone at night.
The other end of town is where the homeless hang out. Street people in many layers of well-worn clothing stand at intersections with signs and a hand out, or pitch “tents” on the undeveloped land next to the freeway.
Recently, a good friend of ours had to go to the other end of town for a job interview at the social services office. Her car was in the shop; she needed a ride. I offered to drive. So while she was talking to her potential employer, I sat in the car in the parking lot, reading a book. The day was lovely, and I had the windows open to enjoy the warm sunshine. I felt perfectly safe.
Then I saw the man approaching my car. He looked a bit unkempt, as if he hadn’t had a chance to change his clothes or shave in the last day or two. Locks of hair escaped his stocking cap. I was struck by how thin he was.
As he walked up to my rolled-down window, he looked nervous, not threatening—like a dog who had been kicked a few times too many, and expected more of the same.
“Excuse me ma’am.” He looked at his feet, then back at me. “I was wondering if you could tell me how to get to [an intersection about ten miles away]. How long would it take to walk there?”
I explained that his destination really wasn’t within walking distance. Perhaps a bus?
“Oh, I don’t have enough money to take the bus. We used it for the tow truck. See, we were driving through, me, my wife, our five beautiful daughters, and our son (all under the age of seven), and our car broke down. No one would help us. We were stuck by the side of the highway for hours. Finally, a kind older lady stopped. She even took us in….” He went on to describe a long list of woes and mishaps. I wasn’t sure whether I should believe him or not. He also introduced himself as Richard from Tyler, Texas. I told him my name was Leslie, and he started calling me “Miss Leslie.” He was very polite.
He asked if he could use my cell phone to call his family, so they wouldn’t worry about him, and I handed it out the door. I listened as he talked to his wife. Then he handed the phone back, explaining that “Miss Mary” was on the other end, and she wanted to reassure me that he wasn’t lying. I was a bit embarrassed about that, but went ahead and said hello to whoever was there.
I found myself talking to the sweetest lady. She told me how glad she was that I was helping Richard, how that made me “God’s child.” She was effusive in her praise, even though I really hadn’t done anything yet. She confirmed his story and explained that she had brought the entire family to her tiny apartment so they’d have a safe place to stay while they waited for the car to be fixed.
“It’s what the Lord would have us do, isn’t it?” she asked. I could hear small kids playing in the background. Either the tale was true, or they had rehearsed an elaborate scam.
I hung up and turned back to Richard, still standing at my car door window. Now what? I couldn’t leave, since my friend was expecting a ride home after her interview. But I don’t make it a habit to pick up strange men, no matter how harmless they appear. I shot off a quick prayer, asking for guidance. And that’s when it dawned on me.
My friend was interviewing for a job as a social worker! She would know what resources were available to help a stranded family. I explained my idea, and Richard, out of options, agreed to wait for her to return. While we waited, he talked… and talked… and talked.
I learned that he was desperate, and had been sitting on the steps praying (praying!) when he felt God telling him to go talk to me. He had used up all his funds to get their broken car towed to a garage, where a mechanic had agreed to fix it for free. If not for the kindness of elderly Miss Mary, he and his family would have spent the night on the streets.
The next thing he told me was very disturbing. He said he’d been to every church in the area (and our town has a lot of churches) but not one was able to provide instant help to a needy family. There were lots of programs designed to feed and shelter the homeless, but no funds set aside for a meal or gas fill-up for a stranger. He had visited my own home church. He had visited my friend’s church. He described in detail what they had told him, and how worthless it made him feel. I felt awful.
I asked him to tell me, specifically, what he needed. How could I help?
The most urgent necessity was food for his kids. He mentioned, almost as an aside, that he had yet to eat that day, but he could wait as long as his kids were provided for. He figured that $30 would buy enough groceries for the two long days it would take to drive home.
And then, almost as important as food, he had to get home or run the risk of losing his job. Yes, he was fully employed at a low-paying job but he owned a home, paid his bills, and supported his family. He wasn’t wealthy, but with careful budgeting, they scraped by. He had never imagined he’d end up in such a bind. The car was promised by the end of the day, but he needed gas money.
And finally, he had to find a way back to Miss Mary’s apartment where he’d left his family. He described where it was, and I realized it was directly on the way back to my friend’s house.
Hmmm. This was exactly the sort of situation Pete and I had in mind when we decided to set some money aside every month for spontaneous giving. Yes, I was running a risk. He could be authentic—or not. But really, that was God’s problem. I was going to assume that Richard was who he said he was, and trust him.
I pulled out my wallet and emptied it into his hand. I didn’t have enough to meet all his needs. I don’t usually carry much cash on me. But at least I could provide some meals. “Here, this is for your wife and kids… and this is for you. I’m sorry there isn’t more, but that’s all I have. Go get some lunch. Don’t worry, I won’t leave. There’s a little teriyaki place right there on the corner. When you get back, we’ll talk to my friend and see if she has any ideas. And then we’ll take you to Miss Mary’s place.” Richard looked about ready to cry. He was so grateful for so little.
As I drove home later that afternoon, I went back over the events of the day. On the plus side: I had helped a friend with a ride. I had helped a desperate family with some food. Along with my friend, I’d actually let a strange man into the car and given him a ride. Nothing bad had happened.
On the other hand, I kept wishing I could have done more. Ideas popped into my head—I could have taken him to the market to buy groceries. I could have paid for them with my credit card, allowing him to use the cash for gas. I could have… I could have….
Well, I just didn’t think of that at the time. Maybe this spontaneous giving idea takes some practice. I wonder what God has in store for next month?
Have you ever been approached by someone needing a handout—or just a hand? What did you do? What do you wish you had done?
Oh, and my friend got the job!