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My Nine Year Old's Burning Question

There are lots of panhandlers between the I-65N exit ramp and my home. One Sunday afternoon, I counted six panhandlers in a mile and a half. They stand in the sun and in the wind with cardboard signs that explain their plight. The more panhandlers you see, the easier it becomes not to notice them.

One sunny afternoon, I pulled up to the intersection of the I-65 off-ramp and 29th Street, and an SUV had already pulled off the side of the road. A woman was holding onto a thin African American man with the graying beard while he swayed. He became increasingly unstable until she eased him down onto the grass.

“Do you need me to call an ambulance?” I asked as I stopped.

“Yes, he can’t even hold himself up. I think he’s severely dehydrated.” The man’s voice was barely audible as he mumbled something unintelligible to the woman who was helping. A neighbor went to go and get a glass of water.

I had just explained the situation to the 911 operator and was hanging up, when my nine-year old popped out of the car and loudly asked, “Mom, is this a real homeless person, or is he just asking for money?” I shushed her and reminded her to remain in the car until the ambulance got there and I could leave. And she waited, only until I got back in the car.

“Now can I ask the question? Is he a real homeless man or is he just asking for money?” And again, she had the guts to ask the question that we are all thinking when we see a panhandler on the side of the road. Does he really need my help, or is he just playing on my sympathy? And it’s a fair question. Because caring for people in this world can be messy.

“You never know,” I answered, “But I think he’s real.”

“Why?”

“Well, hon, it’s really complicated. A lot of people who live on the streets either have cognitive or mental illnesses, or they are impaired from drug use, and I’m pretty sure his mind isn’t working right.”

“Why do you say that?” she asked innocently.

“Well, look at his sign,” I said as I was pulling away. “He’s panhandling with a sign that says, ‘Pregnant. Need Help.’ And he may be a lot of things but I don’t think he’s pregnant.”

A few weeks ago, my daughter had questioned me about the woman who had written that sign, begging me to help her because she was pregnant and had to stand on the corner asking for money. And at that time, I had made the quick judgement that the woman’s story was fake, and blew off my daughter’s requests.  As a social worker, I am aware of the numerous resources available for pregnant women. So I chose to assume that this woman had wanted the freedom of cash instead of the assistance from a program that came with accountability.

But a few days after the incident with the older man, I saw that same pregnant woman panhandling on the same corner, and another thought came to me.

Over 2,000 years ago there was another woman, pregnant, with nowhere to stay, who was asking for help and everyone turned her away. And that woman was carrying my Jesus.

Here is my challenge. Can I see Mary in that woman? Can I see Jesus in that womb?

That’s the messiness of real love. We all want to help people who had a tough break and are down on their luck, but want to change. But who wants to help someone who is trying to scam you? And yet which person is further from God and needs our help more? And if Christ died for us while we are still sinners, then maybe representing love to someone who doesn’t deserve it is the most Christ-like thing we can do.

I’m not saying that we should be guilted into giving cash to panhandlers. But I am saying that even if every word written in Sharpie marker on their cardboard sign is fake, the people on the corner are still important characters in the story of God’s redemption and carry the heart of Jesus inside them, whether they know it or not.

Because I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat.

I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink.

I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.

We all know those passages. But what to do they look like when giving food or drink or cash isn’t the answer? Maybe it’s something as simple as…

…I was ignored, and you looked at me.

…I was lost, and you guided me home.

…I was lying, but you respected me enough to ask for truth.

…I felt worthless, but you saw value in me.

…You reminded me that I exist.

May I remember that the next time I see a cardboard sign.

Post by Monica Tatera (CG Midtown). 

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