Today, my friend Gen and I went to the mall. I didn’t really feel like going, but I had to return some curtains that didn’t match up, and luckily Gen was game for meeting me there, which took the boredom out of the errand.
We walked around for a bit, and I noticed a man. He was a skinny black man wearing worn and grimy clothes who looked markedly out of place. We walked up to a sandwich place to buy some water and he approached us. Actually, I think it was me he approached. I am marked that way.
“Good afternoon,” he said. “I’m feeling pretty hungry, and I’m wondering if you might be able to spare a couple of dollars so I can buy myself something to eat.”
Mentally, I rolled my eyes. Like most people, I’ve heard this line before.
I caught myself feeling ugly inside and asked the Holy Spirit to put me in check. I said, “No, I don’t have any cash. But I’d be happy to buy you a sandwich.”
The man looked taken aback. But then, with a gleam in his eye, he said, “What kind of sandwich? Do they have hamburgers? Frito pie?” By this time, he was pretty much giving his order to the girl behind the counter — for the second time during the past couple of hours, as it turned out.
I bought him a bottle of water, too, but he refused it. Before the food was even ready, he was telling his story of hunger to some other folks who had walked into his snare.
I felt like walking right up to him and confronting him, saying, “I just bought you something to eat. Quit telling these people lies to feed your addiction.”
I didn’t, though. Quickly, my irritation turned to sadness. This man, whose clothes weighed heavy with the weight of many demons, reminded me of my older son.
The story about this son is long and sad, and maybe I’ll tell it at some point. But not now.
So here was this man who reminded me of my son, and he was dirty, he was begging, he was lying, he was quite unlovely.
I think we tend to want to make poverty romantic. To be the savior to the unwashed. It doesn’t work that way, though. People are often impoverished because of addictions, unwise choices and burdensome relationships. A person may want freedom from worrying about how to pay the electric bill, but may not want to make the changes necessary to make that happen. Change is hard for all of us, and some folks just aren’t up to it. As Gen’s husband said the other night when we were talking about a similar situation, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
But we can love. How we can love without being taken advantage of currently eludes me. I am asking God to show me how.
Photo credit: Confetti