On Giving to the Poor

He said he and his mother had just finished at prayer meeting, and somewhere along the way he lost his wallet. He’d already asked a handful of people, all of whom said no.

“Who is so cruel as to leave people stranded after a church meeting?” he said.

He just wanted gas to get home. I had three thin dollars in my wallet, and offered them to him, but he said that wouldn’t get him far enough.

“I’ll Venmo you the money once I get home,” he said, handing me his business card. It had his picture on it, a real estate broker, it said.

“Sure,” I said.

“$20, okay?” he asked. “Just want to make sure I get all the way home.”

I stuck in my debit card and punched the PIN. He looked away as I did, then began to pump gas into his Toyota.

I was there to get gas myself when I first saw him; the indicator light had been flashing for over thirty miles and I was beginning to get nervous. I pulled in to the Kroger to fill up, and that’s when Aaron Martin, the man on the business card, approached me.

I have a complicated relationship with beggars.

When I was younger my mother was in nursing school, and for one of her projects she studied the the health effects of homelessness. As an adult, I understand this, but as a five year old it was strange to see her stop and talk to homeless people. Even after her research was over, while walking through the park or the mall, or at the beach, she’d see a vagrant she recognized from her study and strike up a conversation. Often, she’d buy them a little food, or a slip a five dollar bill in their pocket when my father wasn’t looking.

During lunch, or on the drive home, she’d recount their stories. Like Ken, for instance, who had a son who’s a dentist. Or Peter, who became a vagabond after his wife died. “LuAnne lost her job when the hotel closed,” Mom prattled, “and there wasn’t anything else she was trained to do.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but Mom was making the homeless human. They weren’t just beggars or transients; they were people, and they had names. Like Ken, Peter, and LuAnne.

When I lived in the mountains near Sisters, Oregon, there weren’t many homeless people; winter saw to that. A woman from town created a little camp of sorts outside the city limits, and you could occasionally see her hauling a cardboard box or bags of groceries on her derelict bicycle. Gladys, I think her name was, but even she would disappear from November to April. Portland, however, was different.

In Portland, while I lived in a fairly safe and very gentrified neighborhood, just a few blocks away were many of the cities service organizations:  soup kitchens, overnight shelters, city churches, and methadone clinics. Walking downtown or driving over the Burnside Bridge, you’d see clusters of men, women, and families waiting for these places to open, or just biding their time, spending their days in limbo. Further up on Glisan Street, towards Kings Heights where I lived, you could feel removed from the fervor of downtown.

Less city bustle, more neighborhoods, the homeless population dwindled in my corner of Northwest Portland—except for a few regulars that most in the area could distinguish as part of the regular backdrop of our locale. There was the man who was always checking the parking stations for forgotten loose change. He wore a scruffy black beard and tattered Converse. The woman who was known to steal food from the grocery store down the street would just walk in grab a loaf of bread, or an apple or two, and walk back out. I remember hearing a produce manager once say of her, “What’s a lost banana every now and then?” And the man who was often outside the coffee shop down the street, tapping you on your way in, asking you if you had any spare change, or if you’d be willing to get him a cup of coffee.  Then there was Wheels.

Wheels wasn’t his real name of course, and I don’t think anyone else in the neighborhood called him that; but it seemed an appropriate moniker because he was often riding on the back of a large grocery store shopping cart like a skateboard, or a scooter, or sometimes even like a soap box derby car. Wheels would travel around the Alphabet District in Northwest Portland and fill his cart with aluminum cans and glass bottles that he’d found on the street or deep in trash cans, before taking them down to the neighborhood recycling center for five cents a piece.

You could tell he was young, late twenties or early thirties maybe, but his skin was weathered, made leathery by the sun and the cold. His fuzzy blonde hair stuck up at odd angles, in light wisps of sand colored candy floss, circling a tan patch of shiny scalp. He wore army green cargo pants (yes, of course he did), a black multi-pocketed freezer coat, and the most pleasant, often smiling, demeanor. I know how trite that detail sounds in an essay about a homeless man, but it’s true, he was, so often, smiling.

Wheels never asked for money or anything. So many of the other neighborhood regulars were aggressive in their panhandling, often being able to recognize the neighborhood locals, and specifically targeting tourists or suburbanites coming to the city to do some shopping. And in the midst of seeing a poor unsuspecting Californian get harassed by a beggar, you’d turn around to see Wheels coasting down the street, weaving in and out of traffic on his shopping cart, going about his business of picking up cans and bottles.

I want to believe we’re all equal, that God is fair in his dealings, that both the lamb and the scapegoat have equal chances with the Lord; but then I see Wheels, or Ken, or Peter, or LuAnne, and the facts of the story seem much less palpable.

I gave Wheels  a box of cans once. I saw him pushing his cart just uphill from my apartment building and told him to wait if he had a minute, and I’d go get him the recycling from under my sink. It was a good sized box and quite full, as I am a lazy recycler, and Wheels was ever so grateful.

“Here, I want to give you something,” he said, happy and flustered, his hands darting in and out of his many pockets. “Oh here,” he said, “take one,” producing three links of unwrapped salami from the depths of a coat pocket.

“No, thanks. Those are yours,” I said, trying to keep a straight face, despite the distinct smell of rotting meat.

“Well, these cans are yours,” he said.

“No, those are yours too,” I said.

“Well, thanks man,” Wheels said before loading up his cart and rolling down the hill. “If you change your mind about the salami, just let me know.”

I guess you give what you have, and hope that it’s enough.

But of course, Aaron Martin, never sent me the money on Venmo, He sped away in his car before I could put his info into my phone and see there was an error. The phone number didn’t work when I sent a text to it either, nor when I called it.

Anecdotally, we all know stories like these, when giving worked out for the good, as well as when we were lied to and got shafted out of twenty dollars at the Kroger gas station.

After Jesus is done preaching the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, he continues his sermon, talking about murder, adultery, and divorce. Then he gets to fairness and giving.

“If someone wants to take your shirt, give him your coat as well.”“Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”“He causes the sun to rise and fall on the good and the evil, and causes the rain to fall on the sinners and the saints.”

I find it so fascinating that Jesus felt the need to explain murder to us. Why wasn’t, “Murder: Don’t do it,” enough, as found in Exodus 20? But I guess it wasn’t clear enough. We needed to be reminded, like I needed to be reminded that it wasn’t really my twenty dollars that Aaron Martin used for gas. Perhaps I was its steward for awhile, but so often I forget that everything here is freely given—the air we breathe, the sun that rises and sets on us all, the rain that brings refreshing and flood. Yeah, even that twenty dollars was only, as the hymn writer Stuart Hamblen put it, “borrowed for a while.” And while it’s not honorable that Aaron lied to me, the hurt comes from the shame that I was swindled, that I was foolish in believing the lie.

Yet how lavish the love of God to bless us liars and swindlers, even though He is never fooled by our deceptions, even though He already knows how we intend to misuse his gifts. He does know, after all, what it’s like to be human. To be tempted, and all the will power it takes to overcome that temptation—which most days I find myself lacking.

I wonder if my mother ever worried about that, about the repercussions of handing out a burger or a five dollar bill to someone who said they were in need, but I suppose worrying about that sort of thing is not what her giving was about in the first place.

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