A couple of months ago I was out with my son when a perfect teachable moment came our way – I just didn’t realise that it would be me who learned the most from it.
He sits at a city bus stop in oily trousers and a checkered shirt. His lined face and cloudy grey eyes tell a hard story. Beside him, in a brown paper bag is his only possession; a bottle that he guards and shepherds closer to his side at intervals. He sits in an inconvenient position with hand extended to strangers who are determined not to see him. They, of course, are doing the “right thing”; you don’t give money to an alcoholic, right?
I’m going to walk by too, except that the idea of walking by is sticking in my throat. It’s sticking there because of the hand I’m holding, the hand that’s almost (but not quite) as big as mine – the hand of a boy who one day too soon will be a man.
This boy has heard me talk about mercy and compassion all of his life and yet now he watches me walk by a person… a human being… as though he is none of my concern. He watches me doing what everyone before me has done and I can’t take another step. I can’t bear for him to grow up and believe that others must earn our compassion, that only the good or perfect deserve mercy (because actually, none of us are truly good). So we turn around and we walk back to the man that none of us want to see and what we try to give him is not money but dignity. We try to see the value of one person even though we are programmed by society not to see.
I introduce myself and shake his hand and by this stage Elijah has no idea what I’m doing – I’m sure he thinks his mum has finally lost it. I ask the man what he needs and I’m ready. I’m waiting for him to say money. Apparently, so is the businessman who has been sitting nearby watching.
“You’re doing the wrong thing” he calls to me “If you give him money, he’ll just drink it”.
I ignore the onlooker and ask the man again how I can help and he looks up at us from his spot on the ground and says; “I’d really like a pie”. Not a beer (or any other type of alcohol), not cigarettes or a couple of bucks “to get me back on my feet” – he wants a pie, food… and my heart wants to break.
So we leave him there and he continues to beg while we walk across the road to the pie shop and as we cross a small voice asks me; “Mum, why are we doing this? Why can’t someone else help?” The answer rings loudly in my heart.
We are doing it because in life we are the “someone else”.
People end up begging in gutters for so many reasons that I cannot even begin to understand, but one of the reasons that they stay there must be because we live in a society that has trained us from childhood that it’s someone else’s problem. We are conditioned to believe that people in need are somehow also people at fault – that they have made mistakes and deserve the consequences of those mistakes. We see beggars on the street and feel that they are trying to take advantage of us. And maybe they are, most likely they have made poor choices but does that absolve us from the need to show grace? Does that mean that we cannot in some small way alleviate their suffering? And if we can bring some small comfort, shouldn’t we?
That day, for the price of a pie, I remembered that I may not be able to do everything to save the world, but that I can do something. That day, for the price of a pie, I remembered the words of Dr Suess in Horton Hears a Who… “A person’s a person, no matter how small” and they are lessons I hope I will not quickly forget.
I want to hear from you! What do you believe is our personal responsibility (if any) when it comes to helping the poor? Have you had a teachable moment that has changed the way you see a group of people or a social issue?