For the past 6 months, I’ve been getting myself ready to travel out of the country for a missions trip. I’m going to the Dominican Republic, where lots of people needs lots of help. I, myself, needed lots of help to even afford going. So, much of those 6 months involved ‘fundraising’ using Facebook and a PayPal account.
Now, for me, it’s a little awkward asking people for money from which they don’t receive any tangible goods or services aside from a tax deduction at the end of the year. True…that’s what makes a donation a ‘donation’. However, I just can’t shake the humbling discomfort of knowing that people – many of which are relative strangers – are just giving me their hard-earned money. Either they believe in the cause which I’ve presented via a Facebook Group page and they trust that their financial support is going exactly where I said it is going…or, perhaps they’re responding to an inexplicable influence from above. Regardless of the motive, they helped; and they did so without a ‘side-eye’ or investigation into whether or not I or my cause was legit. The more I think about it, the more humbling it is.
Today, I had a common encounter that afforded me a relatively uncommon perspective over all of this. I went out for lunch as I do every other workday. Whole Foods was the place of choice (their salad bar and hot bar are God-sends #epicYum). Like most grocery stores, it’s located within a shopping center. I went during the typical lunch hour, so I dealt with the typical rush and pedestrian traffic. Every now and again, I’d see this particular homeless man holding a cardboard sign at the entrance of the parking lot asking for help. I welcome this, actually, as I do enjoy picking him up a little lunch from Whole Foods’ glorious hot bar and delivering it to him on my way out of the parking lot. He’s always so appreciative. This is my preferred method of ‘helping’ the homeless – providing a meal or some other tangible goods they need. Giving them money? Not so much. At least by giving them food or a coat I get some assurance that my resources have gone towards something good. You know? (Of course you do).
Now, today was different. My homeless friend wasn’t there. Instead, there was what seemed to be an entire family standing at the entrance. There was a young woman, a toddler in a carriage, a little girl, and a man standing next to her holding a cardboard sign asking for help with “Rent”. At first glance, I was a bit surprised. I don’t see ‘families’ everyday on the corner in Vienna, Virginia. Nonetheless, I accepted the ‘challenge’ of buying enough food for four people and continued on into Whole Foods.
Not long after entering the grocery store did doubt set in. “What if this ‘family’ wasn’t struggling at all, but instead, using this ‘poor family’ image as a gimmick to get money from passersby? I mean, the other homeless guy’s sign asks for food and general ‘help’. But this guy specifically wants ‘rent’ money. Could he have just put his wife…or GIRLfriend and the kids up to it? Why else would he have them standing out there with him in 40-degree weather instead of letting them wait indoors somewhere in this shopping center?” As I walked through the aisles of Whole Foods, I tried to answer these questions of my suspicious doubts. Ultimately, I decided to just go with the original plan and get them some food.
I bought one of those warm, whole rotisserie chickens next to the cashier line. It looked and smelled awesome. My doubts, though, still churned as I fought the urge to cave in to these suspicions that were ultimately unsubstantiated. How could I know? They might really need help. Right? Sure…so I’ll give them some food. After all, I’m not giving them any money. I’m sure they’ll save money to put towards rent if they don’t have to buy food. Yes… I’m being smart about this.
On my way out of the parking lot, I pulled right up next to the man and handed him the clamshell container of chicken.
“Thank you…God bless you,” he said with a rich Hispanic accent.
I caught a glimpse of their facial expressions as the ‘transaction’ took place. They looked so serious…no smiles, no obvious signs of ‘appreciation’ like my usual homeless man…just these somber looks of “it’s cold outside”. I had various assessments of this…some in their favor, others not so much. Alas, I continued on my way back to work…at least I tried.
I wasn’t a half of a mile from the shopping center before I began to debate with my conscience.
“…food fixes hunger, but it won’t help much with their rent…”
“Well… If they’re struggling as much as they say they are, I’m sure they were hungry. So I did them a service,” I replied.
“Yeah, you did feed them. That was good…but you didn’t give them money because you thought they might have been trying to hustle. So you just gave them food…”
“Well yeah… they could have been lying about not having money for rent. So I didn’t give them money just in case.”
“…’just in case’, huh? Interesting…”
“…You’re lucky no one thought ‘just in case’ when it came time to donate to your mission trip. You might have been hustling them, too. They couldn’t guarantee that you weren’t, but they gave you money anyway…”
At this point, I couldn’t deny my hypocrisy. I had only recently been so blessed by the unprejudiced generosity of others. Yet, here I was clutching my own wallet when it came to giving relatively a few bucks to a guy who could have needed a donation much more than I did. In fact, I had been so blessed apart from the donations that I still had little justification in questioning the motives of someone else before giving them money.
I made the next right turn and made a beeline trek back to the shopping center. My bank had a branch location, complete with an ATM, right there in the parking lot. How convenient. I took out some cash, walked right over to the guy and handed him the money. I didn’t know if his plea for help was legitimate of a scam. All I had was my own imagination that could make conclusions either way. What I did know was that he could really need it, and that this could be his family that really could be desperate for ends-meet. I couldn’t be sure and it didn’t matter. What mattered was that I won a battle against stingy hypocrisy and passed on a blessing of generosity; and that’s something I’m more than happy to send around in the cycle of reciprocity.