Like many, I struggle at times to know how best to respond to people who approach me asking for money. I am an avid supporter of our local street paper, The Contributor, that supports many homeless persons and gives them a way to earn money and potentially change their lives.
A couple of days ago as I was coming out of Starbucks (I don’t go there very often, just when I need a real jolt to make it through the day), a man asked me if I could spare a dollar or two. He looked me directly in the eye. I don’t usually carry much cash, but I gave him a dollar. I think I have gotten past worrying that he might spend it on booze or something else. He’s a human being, he has dignity, and sometimes we all need a hand.
It seems that such encounters don’t happen just once but several times for me in the same week. Yesterday was a gorgeous day in Nashville that just begged to be enjoyed. I had been in meetings all day (except for delivering Meals on Wheels at lunchtime) and resisted the idea of going back to my office without enjoying some sunshine. Besides, I had this craving for a McFlurry, a decadence I allow myself every now and then.
So off I started to McDonald’s, thinking I’d hit the one at Vanderbilt Hospital. Alas, it has been replaced by a high-end coffee and baguette shop. Ugh. As if we need another around there.
I often walk the Vandy campus, so I thought, “Well, the McDonald’s on West End isn’t THAT far away,” and I made a bee line (so to speak) for 28th Avenue and West End. By the time I got there, I was nearly worn out and considered calling one of my colleagues to come pick me up…I’d just about used all my energy just to get to Mc-y D’s. I got my McFlurry and a cup of water and decided to sit alongside a bed of roses at Centennial Park.
It was such a gorgeous day that the socks and shoes had to come off. As I was reveling in the feeling of my bare feet on the grass and the delicious ice cream mixed with M & M’s sliding down my throat, I noticed the not-so-welcome aroma of cigarette smoke. I scooted a little farther away from the smoke.
Soon I was greeted by the smoker, who told me he’d just gotten out of the hospital, where he’d had seizures the day before. He said his wife was at work at Trevecca (which isn’t close to Centennial Park) and that he was hungry. I looked around and saw 2 cups of soft drinks on the ground beside him.
We chatted a bit. He remarked, “I’m really hungry. I wonder if you could spare some money so I can buy food at McDonald’s.” I told him I didn’t have any cash on me, but I’d be glad to take him there and buy him something with my debit card. He said, “I’m not a drunk.” Then he told me he attended a certain Methodist church in town and went to AA meetings at my church. (As soon as he said he wasn’t a drunk, I knew he was.) I talked with him a little more, telling him about my experience with someone close to me who had been through a 12-step residential program. I finished my McFlurry, which was getting pretty soupy at this point, and he shook my hand and told me his name. Then he pulled out some old pictures he was carrying with him of his wife and then-young children.
This tore at my heartstrings, as it was probably intended to. It also said to me that he must be separated from his family and that his alcoholism had come between them. He said he hadn’t had a drink for a long time, but I smelled booze on him. Still, the man was hungry. And I couldn’t walk away from him knowing that.
I said, “Okay, I’m ready to go back to McDonald’s now. Come with me.” He hesitated. He said, “Do you mind just going in there and ordering something for me?” I said, “Oh, they’ve thrown you out before, huh?” He nodded a little sheepishly. So I went to McDonald’s and bought what he requested: 2 McChicken sandwiches from the dollar menu and a cup of water.
As I gave him the food, I told him, “Keep working the program, brother.” Sometimes I feel compelled to say, “God bless you” but I didn’t feel like I needed to say anything about God to him. If he’s indeed been inside the church he said he attended, he has heard the love of God proclaimed over and over.
I just feel heavyhearted for that man and for all who struggle with addiction. They need to know someone will take time to listen to them. They need to know someone cares. They need to know…oh, Lord, what can I say here? … that they have dignity as persons. I hope this man was uplifted just a little and that he finds the help he obviously needs. God, today that is my prayer.