Tag Archive | panhandler

Kindness or Foolish Generosity?

5dollarThere, I did it again. Two and a half years ago I gave $5 to a stranger who asked for a dollar or two to buy gas to get home for Christmas. I was at a McDonald’s parking lot just off the interstate between Cambridge and Wisconsin Dells.

This time was just a couple weeks ago. Mim and I were walking down West Mifflin Street in Madison, just off the Capitol Square.  We were headed back to the parking garage to get our car after attending a wonderful Saturday morning piano and organ concert at the Overture Center. A woman, probably in her 30s, approached us and asked, “Can you give me $2 so I can get a bowl of soup?”

Purse - WalletMim said to her, “I don’t have my purse with me,” and looked at me. So did the woman.  With all eyes on me I lifted my tiny wallet out of my little purse dangling from my wrist, and pulled out my wad of folded bills. I always keep my money in order, so my smallest bill was on the outside of the wad. It was a five. I peeled it off and handed it to her. “I don’t have any ones. I hope this is OK,” I said with a grin on my face as I handed her the $5. She looked at me a little strangely and took the bill. She said, “Thank you,”  and we walked our separate ways.

Wallet with $5 in wadAfter a few steps Mim asked me, “Do you think we’ve been conned?”

“I don’t think so,” was my reply, “but even if we were, I’m sure she needs that $5 bill more than we do.”

I didn’t think any more about the incident for a couple weeks. Then last week, it popped into my mind again. I have no regrets for giving $5 to the woman, whether she used it for soup, or not. But I started thinking about what would have been the best way to handle the situation. I guess my most obvious options were to A) ignore her and keep walking toward the parking garage, or B) give her some money. But I wonder if there are any better options.

When I lived in Chicago and worked in the Loop, I walked by people asking for money every day. I never gave a dime to anyone. I rationalized that my money would go farther by giving it to church or other social service organizations, which I did. In retrospect, I think I was being very unkind. By simply ignoring everyone who asked me for a quarter or a dollar, I made it perfectly clear to them that I didn’t care about them or their problems. Which I guess was true. My actions proved it. As I look back, I’m surprised at how hard-hearted I was.

homeless womanI suppose that some people who  walk up and down the street asking for a dollar or two are desperately trying to get money for drugs or alcohol, and that giving them money is simply delaying them getting into some kind of treatment program. And I’m certainly not skilled at identifying which people on the street are really hungry and need a bowl of soup, and which ones are focused solely on getting enough money to support their addiction.

Living where I do now, I don’t meet people on the street asking for money every day – maybe just a few times a year is more likely. But it happened a couple weeks ago, and I know it will happen again sometime. When that time comes, I want to do what our pastor is constantly encouraging us to do – to be Christ’s hands in this world – I want to be kind like Christ was. But what does that really mean today?

Floey smiling profileAs I was thinking about this, I turned to my usual source for wise insights. I asked Floey what she thought. “Hey, Floey. What do you do when someone you don’t know asks you for some help?”

“What do you mean, Mom? What kind of help?”

“Well, what I’m really asking, Floey, is what should I do when a stranger comes up to me on the street and asks me for a couple bucks. I know you don’t carry money around, so it’s not quite the same thing for you, but what do you think I should do? The person apparently needs help, but that’s the only thing I know about her.”

“Does the person make you feel scared? When a scary stranger comes up to me I growl at them and start to back away. I don’t want to hurt them, but I don’t want them to hurt me either.”

“No, Floey. The kind of stranger I’m talking about is someone who really needs some kind of help, like maybe just a couple dollars to buy a meal. She might be a homeless person.”

“Oh, then the answer is easy. Give her what she needs, if you can. Remember when you first adopted me last year, and we talked about my Native American roots – how I came from an Indian reservation in Minnesota?”

“Yes, I remember talking about where you came from, Floey.”

“I told you that in my Native American culture, the greatest sin of all is stinginess. The reverse is also true. The greatest virtues are love, kindness, and generosity – the opposites of stinginess.”

“I guess if I believe that, too, then the answer should be obvious – I should give the stranger what she asks for, if I can. I should be loving, kind, and generous.”

“Yup. That’s what I’d do. I’d give her what she asked for, if I could.”

“But what if I’m being conned – and she just wants me to give her money because she’d rather ask for it than work for it?”

“You can’t know that. You don’t have that piece of information about a stranger you’ve never met before. You only know what you can see and hear at that moment – and that’s what you’re supposed to act on.”

“Thanks, Floey. That’s good advice. I think I’ll try to keep a few dollars handy in my pocket whenever I can, just to be sure I can be loving, kind, and generous the next time a stranger approaches me on the street and asks for a couple dollars.”

“I think that’s a good idea, Mom. Now do you know what I’m going to ask you for, even though I’m not a stranger?”

“I’m sure I can guess. Yes, Floey. We can go on a walk! Thanks for helping me finish this blog post first. Now let’s go sniff out an adventure.”

Floey sitting smiling 07-06-15

Floey – ready to go for a walk.

The Price of Kindness and Gas

Christmas Mountain Village in Wisconsin Dells

Christmas Mountain Village in Wisconsin Dells

About noon on Friday I left Christmas Mountain in Wisconsin Dells to drive home for the weekend. I’ll return today (Monday) for three more days of my 10-day writing retreat. I’d made the reservations for this writing retreat a couple months ago. Since then a few things have come up for the weekend that required me to go back home. Fortunately, the drive is only a little over an hour. But on Friday, it was closer to two hours.

After I’d been on the road about twenty minutes my cellphone rang. It was Mim. She wanted to know if I remembered where I had put the music for “Mary Had a Baby.” One of my reasons for going home for the weekend was to play the piano to accompany Mim. She was going to sing “Mary Had a Baby” for a Scandinavian Christmas Hymn Sing at East Koshkonong Lutheran Church on Saturday afternoon. (“East” is one of two churches where I’m half-time organist.) I told Mim where I thought the music should be, but it wasn’t there. I suggested a few other places she could look – but the music wasn’t in any of those places either. Finally I thought, maybe I had taken it to Christmas Mountain with me to practice on my keyboard. I decided to take the next exit off I-90. I pulled into a McDonald’s parking lot to check my briefcase in the back seat of my car, just to be sure the music wasn’t there, before driving back to Christmas Mountain to look for it in the timeshare condo I was using for ten days.

As I got out of my car a man, probably in his thirties, walked up to me. He said he hated to ask, but he didn’t have quite enough gas to get where he was going. Could I give him a dollar or two to help him buy more gas.

US Currency - small bills 2The situation took me by surprise. When I lived in Chicago and worked in the Loop, people on the street asked me for money almost every day. I usually ignored the requests. Back then I rationalized that giving generously to churches and social service agencies instead would help more people. Today, I’m not so sure I made the right decision about that. I wasn’t being kind to the person in need right in front of me.

I moved to Wisconsin twenty years ago, and a stranger asking me for money here is a rare occurrence. On Friday, the guy sounded sincere. He was driving an old white Chevy with plenty of rust. There were a couple other men waiting inside his car. Maybe I was being conned, but I really didn’t think I was. I pulled out my wallet to see what I had – a twenty, a couple tens, a five, and several ones. I gave him the five. He was very appreciative, said “Thank you, Ma’am” several times, flashed a big smile, and walked back to his car.

A beautiful arrangement of "Mary Had a Baby" is in this songbook.

This is the lost (and found) songbook. A beautiful arrangement of “Mary Had a Baby” is in it.

I went back to looking for “Mary Had a Baby” in the back seat of my car. The music wasn’t in my briefcase, so I got back on I-90, headed toward the Dells instead of home. A few minutes later Mim called again. She had found the music. It had been mixed in with the non-Christmas music on the shelf. So, I took the next exit to get headed back home again.

As I was driving, I thought about this little incident. Maybe it was meant to be that I should meet that guy and give him a few bucks. I was feeling good about that rather than being upset by the roundabout route I was taking to get home. But then I thought, how much gas can the poor guy buy with the measly five dollar bill I gave him. Why didn’t I give him the twenty so he could buy almost half a tank?  Why wasn’t I more generous? That bothered me.

Then my thoughts turned to wondering why this whole incident happened. Sure, Mim needed to find the music, and the guy needed gas money. But I also needed to learn more about being generous to someone in need. I must listen a little more closely to what the need is before I figure out how I can help.

I’m glad God’s still trying to teach me lessons!

 

Christmas Cookies 2ON ANOTHER NOTE: Next Sunday, December 16, 2012, is the last hymn sing currently scheduled at Whispering Winds. We’ll sing lots of Christmas carols, eat lots of Christmas cookies, and simply enjoy having a good time together. Everyone is welcome. It’s free. Just show up at 3:00 Sunday afternoon prepared to have a good time. Whispering Winds Retreat Haven, 201 Highland Road, Cambridge, Wisconsin. Call me at 608-212-6197, or email me at MarianKorth&Gmail.com if you have any questions.

Whispering Winds Retreat Haven - 201 Highland Road, Cambridge, Wisconsin

Whispering Winds Retreat Haven – 201 Highland Road, Cambridge, Wisconsin