Friday, May 4, 2007

Rolled for $30?

Here are the facts: I had just returned from getting a bite to eat while on duty as a chaplain at the hospital. I'd parked my car and was walking toward the main entrance when I heard the plaintive cry, "Sir, sir!" I stopped and turned around to see a lady emerging from between two cars. "Yes? Can I help you?" (ironic words) I asked. "Sir, I need some help. My car was broken into and my purse was stolen. I need to get to Dallas tonight and I only have half a tank of gas. Could you help me?"

Now, I don't know if you have ever been randomly hit up for money. I've worked at several churches which operated some sort of benevolence program and I have much experience with people asking for help. Sometimes, it is genuine. Many times, it is someone who is not genuinely in need. The difficulty is trying to sort out which is which.

"Ma'am, have you reported this to security? They have cameras all over the parking lot and they'll probably need you to file a report." She replied, "Oh, it didn't just happen. It happened this afternoon. I'm here at the hospital visiting my aunt." I paused, my mind weighing my options and the circumstance. She didn't look like the typical panhandler who approaches you. She *did* have a car with a broken driver's side window. She was moderately well dressed and wearing jewelry. I decided that however much her story sounded hokey, she was legit.

My experiences with people coming to the church for benevolence had jaded me, though. I fell back on a hard and fast rule that I'd decided upon a long time ago... I will help a person who asks, but I don't give out cash.

"Ma'am, there is a gas station nearby, if you'll carry me there, I'll top off your tank for you." "Oh, thank you!" she replied. I walked back to her car with her and got in the passenger seat. I eyed the bulging purse in the front seat. She followed my gaze and said, "My aunt was kind enough to let me have her purse to carry some things in and a few dollars. I went to the car wash and vacuumed up as much of the glass as I could." I probed, "What is your aunt in the hospital for?" "Oh, they don't know yet. She just came in this afternoon," she told me. "What takes you to Dalls?" "Oh, my daughter is having a baby in the next few days. My fourth grandchild."

We got to the gas station on the corner down the street from the hospital and I got out and used my debit card to access the pump and pumped about $20 into her half-full gas tank (curse those gas prices!). As we waited for the gas tank to fill, I was a bit conflicted. On the one hand, I had a gut feeling that I was getting rolled for a tank of gas. On the other hand, there was no way to know for sure.

My preacher in Enid, Tom Washburn, had a philosophy about giving to the needy. He believed that the biblical principle was to give, give freely, give without judgement as to how your gift will be used and give without expecting ANYTHING (even gratitude) in return. I agree with him in principle, but in practice, my heart is pretty calloused. Why is it that I don't mind helping someone who is grateful, but I am fast to shut down all giving when I think I'm being lied to, used or otherwise duped. Tom believed that what a person does with what they receive is between them and God. While that is true, I tried to mitigate that thought by assuring myself that if I were to give an alcholic a fiver while standing outside the liquor store, I was "enabling" him and not really helping him at all.

Humbled by my recollection of Tom's teaching, as this lady was getting back in her car, I opened my wallet and pulled out a $10 bill and handed it to her. "You will probably need a drink or a snack between here and your daughter's house." "Oh, thank you very much. Do you have a card or something so I can return this to you?" I replied, "No, ma'am, that won't be necessary." She said, "Well, then, I'll just put it in the collection plate on Sunday." She drove off and I walked back to the hospital to finish my shift.

I was more bothered by the fact that I'd decided to help her than I was about my gut feeling. My problem was that in weighing my options: to help her or not to help her, I quickly gauged the externals. Could I verify some of her story? (broken-out driver side window) Was she dressed in a way that I'd found typical of people who are trying to work the system? (No, she was well dressed) Was she defensive and explanatory of every little thing to try to get me to believe her? (well, yes, but logically, she was *trying* to convince me...) My question for myself was, "Would I have done this little thing for someone who didn't fall within my "acceptable" limits of assistance? What if she hadn't been well dressed? What if her story hadn't been as convincing? What if she'd been cussing at her lousy luck and her personality had been off-putting? Who am I to judge a person I can't possibly have enough verifiable information to make a judgement call?

I can only pray that God can judge my actions as well as my heart and maybe next time he blesses me with the opportunity to help someone in this way, I won't be so critical.

Deuteronomy 15:7-11

7 If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. 8 Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. 9 Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: "The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near," so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. 10 Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. 11 There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.

-blessings, jeff

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