He approached the van with a broad smile on his face while I was waiting to pick my daughter up from school. I’d arrived a few minutes early, and was catching up on some reading. He gestured to me, and I rolled down the window.
He asked me directly “Are you a Christian?”
“Yes I am.”
“Are you reading the Word right now?” His eyes were friendly and soulful.
I smiled back at him. “This afternoon I’m reading politics.”
“But you are a Christian?” It seemed an important question to him.
He now appeared rather nervous and I began to wonder what kind of conversation this was going to be. He pulled a card out of his pocket and brought it up to my eye level. It was his driver’s license.
“This is me. This is who I am. I’ve got money too. I can show you. I’ve got to get to Chicago and I need eight more dollars for my fare.”
I considered, for a moment. I knew that I had a five dollar bill and a few singles in my wallet. Before I could discern, he volunteered more information. “I don’t drink or anything.” For some reason, I believed him, though it really didn’t matter.
We seldom see people asking for money on the street in our small town. When we’re visiting the city, if someone is panhandling I almost always give them a few bucks (if I can spare it and unless it seems unsafe to do so). Although friends have occasionally derided me for “supporting someone’s bad habits,” my response has been that it’s not up to me to take on that particular burden of judgment. Let God sort it out.
The man seemed dressed for the weather, clean and not shabby. He told me that he’d had a good job providing transportation to senior citizens until state funding was cut, and then he had lived with his mother until her house was foreclosed. How he ended up here, or what was waiting for him in Chicago, I didn’t ask. By that point I was already handing him the five and three ones.
“This’ll get you there?”
“Yes, sir. Thank you. I’ll worry about finding something to eat later.”
I wished him good luck as he started to walk away, and then, struggling for a cheery admonition, added “I’m trusting you.” As soon as the words crossed my lips I regretted them.
He stopped, looking crestfallen, almost as if he was going to give the money back. “I wouldn’t lie to you. I’ll be on that train at 6 o’clock.” With that, he was on the move again, and I noticed for the first time that he was carrying a backpack.
I called out “God bless you,” as an afterthought.
By the time he had turned the corner I wished that I had done more. His comment about finding something to eat stuck with me. I had eight more singles in my wallet. I could have at least given him enough for a sandwich. I realized that I hadn’t done it because his comment had sounded like a slick panhandler’s line. I had judged the man, and shown him disrespect. I guess I was willing to “let God sort it out” when it came to a couple bucks, but when it approached the princely sum of ten, I didn’t want to be taken for a sucker.
The guilt that I felt at that moment was terrible. I recalled the words of Jesus, and they shamed me. “I was hungry, and you fed me not.”
There were still a few minutes before the kids were dismissed, so I got out of the van and started walking, hoping to find him. I saw someone walking from the nearby grocery store with what looked like a six pack of beer and (still yielding to judgment and suspicion) at first thought it might be him, but then realized by the hat and lack of backpack that it wasn’t. I went into the church to see if he was there waiting in the warmth until time for the train. The church was empty, and now it was time to go collect my daughter.
Back in the van and headed for home, my conscience was still bothering me. I told my daughter “We’re going to take a little detour.” I figured I would drive the five or six blocks to the train station in case he might be there, and then circle back toward the school on our way home in case he was still walking somewhere in between. I was almost desperate in the quest to find him and make amends for what I had said and for what I had failed to do.
To my delight, as we rounded the corner near the depot, I spotted him approaching it from the other direction. I pulled to the curb and rolled down the window. He recognized the van and walked over to us, smiling just as he had earlier.
“Hey, man – I should have given you some money for a sandwich. This is all I’ve got with me, but it ought to at least get you one meal.”
He nodded and grinned warmly. “Thanks. I think they’ve got hot dogs and stuff on the train.”
We shook hands through the open window, and suddenly he looked a little embarrassed. “You could tell that I’m homeless?”
I didn’t really know how to respond, but as we released our handshake I said “The depot is open and it ought to be warm in there until your train comes.”
“Yeah. Thanks again.”
“Good luck in Chicago.”
As we pulled from the curb, my daughter asked “Was that a homeless man?”
As many as 3.5 million people in America experience homelessness in each year, with nearly three-quarters of a million homeless at any given time. The main cause of homelessness continues to be the lack of affordable housing. We can help by volunteering at local shelters, by contributing to organizations like Catholic Charities, by offering our prayers, and (perhaps most importantly of all) by showing our respect for the human dignity of homeless people we encounter.
I don’t know the name of the man I met today, and I will probably never know how his story turns out. I wish him godspeed on his journey, and good luck in the big city. He gave me much more than I gave him.