Breaking Rules

August 1, 2011

I used to have a rule. You might have the same rule or you might know others who have the same rule. It goes like this:

Never give cash.

Give, as in, GIVE–like to strangers who come to you for help.

I learned this rule when I worked as the secretary of my home church in Merrillville, IN and it was demonstrated and reinforced when I worked with the Chicago Urban Project during Spring Break of my senior year of college. In each instance, a mentor taught me that this was an important rule when you’re dealing with those less fortunate.

I walked with a missionary with CUP as she went to a grocery store to purchase some baby formula for a young mother who approached her and asked for help. “Never give cash,” she said. “Cash can be used to buy alcohol or drugs. If someone wants food, take them to buy food. If someone needs gas for a car, take them to the gas station and pay for it. Never give cash.”

And it was good rule for a long time. In some instances, it’s a good guideline. But it’s not my rule anymore.

Today, I stopped at Walmart to pick up some things we needed at home. I paid for my purchase with cash and received $3 in change. I thought about how tomorrow, I could stop at Bridgeview Coffee and get a latte on my way to work. I’m due a latte–it’s been awhile.

As I was leaving the parking lot, I passed a man with kind eyes holding a sign that said “Homeless” in roughly fashioned letters. I smiled at him sadly and kept driving.

Then I remembered that damn latte. And I remembered that I have never had to stand on the side of the road holding a cardboard sign while people drove by and ignored me or smiled sadly at me or told me to “get a job.” I have never wondered how my family was going to eat. I have never been without a bed to sleep in. I’ve never been wealthy, but I’ve never been homeless.

I’ve been thinking lately about things like this…and I’ve been aware that sometimes I’m tempted to think of people as projects and not people…and how I never try to monitor how my friends spend the gifts I give them…and how my brothers and sisters and neighbors aren’t just people who are like me.

And you know what? If my homeless neighbor spends my $3 on a forty, that’s still better than me spending it on a latte.

I pulled out onto the highway and turned back into the Walmart shopping complex and wove my way back to the exit where the man was standing. I sheepishly handed him the $3. He smiled sweetly and thanked me graciously. If I were braver, I might have approached him without the safety of my car surrounding me. I might have learned his story. Maybe some day.

It’s only $3. I didn’t change his situation or even put a dent in it. But I didn’t ignore him, either.