It usually happens the same way.
He makes eye contact. I make eye contact in return. He smiles. I smile. He waves. I wave. He says, "Hello ma'am, can you spare some change?" I know my wallet is empty, and I say, "I'm sorry, sir. But, God bless you. Please be safe out here."
The light turns green. I creep forward. I leave.
This probably happens to me a few times a month. And, depending on where you live, maybe this happens a few times a week. Maybe a few times a day.
Now, I admit. This story typically ends. I leave feeling sadness at this person's condition. I leave feeling angry at the system that forced or created or positioned or led him to homelessness. And, I drive away patting myself on the back for acknowledging his humanity, for looking him in the eyes, for smiling, for waving, and for sending him off with a Christian blessing.
I'm a good person, right?
Yes, the answer is yes. But, by God, what more can I be doing?
On occasion, I create little care bags that I keep in my car. Most often it's a granola bar and a juice box. Sometimes it's a baggie of a few dollars, some food, some warm gloves and clean socks. But, once I run out, I rarely purchase more.
The other day, my family and I were in a hotel lobby eating breakfast. A gentleman came in and called for our attention. "Good morning, sir. Good morning, ma'am." We said "good morning." Then, we looked away.
"Can you spare some change? Spare some coffee?"
I wasn't paying for that breakfast. It was already free. Yet, I sat still in my seat. I averted my eyes. I turned away. I started a conversation with my son who was, frankly, not paying attention to me.
I distracted myself from this man's humanity.
"Ma'am. Hello? Can you spare some money?"
"No, sir. I'm sorry. God bless you. Be safe out there."
Within a minute, the staff of the hotel came out. They politely reminded him to leave, saying that he couldn't keep doing this every weekend.
We all breathed. Be not mistaken, it was a sigh of relief.
An awkward 10 seconds passed. That felt like the longest 10 seconds of my life. I knew what was right, and yet I did nothing.
Though the staff didn't want us to give him any food, I could have walked over to the snack area and purchased some food for him. I could have offered to pay for his meal. I could have invited him to sit down with us.
My husband? He followed the man outside.
When he returned, the staff member asked, "Did you give him some food?"
My husband replied, "No, I told him that the church on the corner has a food pantry." That church was once run by my husband's father.
We finished breakfast, went upstairs to shower, and we walked to church.
Even writing this is disturbing to me. What brought me to the point of ignoring another human being? Who had I become? Who am I? How can I turn away a human being and then walk myself to church to praise God and preach the word and love of Jesus?
I'd like to be able to say that I then did something awesome.
I never saw that man again. But, I know, every week, I'll see another person in the same situation.
I went to work the next day and prepared for a presentation I was giving on upstander behavior (sense the irony yet?). I came across this "What would you do?" video and I am reminded that even we "good people" are flawed. Even we "good people" separate ourselves from the humanity of others. Even we "good people" have a lot of ourselves to see in others.
I'm writing this because I know the importance of acknowledging uncomfortable moments -- ones where we are deficient. I know that, in order for me to do better in this world, I have to acknowledge when I have done worse.
Peace and love,