“This Lent, let us fast from indifference towards the poor.” – Pope Francis
The man stepped out from a doorway and asked for money. When I told him I didn’t have any, and kept walking with my husband, he kept pace, leaned close, sneered, and spoke: “Lady, you’re heartless.”
I thought he might spit on me. I thought he might yank my purse off my arm and run, riffle through my wallet, and throw it in the gutter later, disgusted that my credit card would be of no use to him.
I felt myself shrink as my husband picked up our stride and guided us into a crosswalk. The man stayed on the corner. “Bitch,” he said.
I was trembling by the time we arrived at the restaurant a few blocks away. My husband and I had left our two teens with his mother for what was supposed to be a romantic Christmastime getaway in San Francisco’s Union Square neighborhood. We were supposed to be wowed by the huge outdoor tree lit and tinseled, awed by the beautiful gingerbread houses on display in hotel lobbies, transported by the festive sparkling storefronts.
I was overwhelmed, instead, by the constant city noise—traffic, sirens, construction—and the crowds of shoppers and those in need on every corner. Earlier in the day, I’d given all my spare change (I never carry much cash) away, first to buy a “Homeless Times” newspaper for $1, then to a Salvation Army bell ringer, and finally to a man collecting change in a paper cup to buy a hot meal.
On my home turf, ferrying my daughter to gymnastics lessons afterschool, I knew where I’d encounter the needy with their cardboard signs at the freeway onramps. And if I hit a red light, I’d roll down my window, hold out one or two of the energy bars I kept in the pocket on the driver’s side door, and ask, “Would you like a Power Bar?” I was safe inside my car; nobody pounded on the window or yelled at those who didn’t help.
My husband and I were seated at a table near a fireplace in a pricey low-lit restaurant one of his coworkers recommended. I glanced at the menu, looking for the least expensive entrée, and sipped my ice water.
“I’m not heartless,” I said.
“I know,” my husband answered.
“He doesn’t have any idea.”
The man who called me heartless didn’t know that my velvet dress came from a thrift store where my grandmother volunteered. Didn’t know I usually shopped at K-Mart, that I wouldn’t be buying anything from Nordstrom’s or Neiman Marcus, even on sale. He didn’t know how hard my husband worked for his paychecks and that we didn’t have any savings because we gave our money away.
The man didn’t know that I was serving as pastor of the small church I attended without a salary, or that I donated money to every charity that phoned, unable to turn harden my heart when told horror stories about the treatment of farmworkers or the deaf-blind or the environment or the children in our valley whose only Christmas gifts would come from me, and others like me, posing as Santa.
The man didn’t know my heart was burdened, always, by the plight of my extended family. He didn’t know that my husband and I had provided first and last month’s rent and security deposits for my sister so many times that we sold some of his stock options and bought a condo for her and her son, and paid the monthly HOA fee so she wouldn’t be evicted again.
He didn’t know that we went on title when his sister couldn’t afford her house payments; that we’d refinanced and covered most of her mortgage payments for years. He didn’t know that we loaned (and were never paid back) as well as gave thousands of dollars to other relatives and friends in emergencies.
The man didn’t know about my generosity, or my guilt that I could never do enough to help or fix or save those I gave to. I believed in Jesus, and I also believed I was his hands and feet and wallet here on earth. It’s a heavy responsibility. What would my few dollars do for the homeless man, when a special offering at church for a struggling member was only a temporary fix, and when a house wouldn’t guarantee safety and security for my sister?
The man saw me as a heartless rich white woman. But I didn’t have a neat category to fit him in. I didn’t know what desperation drove him to approach strangers for handouts, or how many times he’d asked for money that day and had been denied it. I didn’t know what led him to the streets—addiction, mental illness, or bad choices like my relatives and church members—or if it’d been circumstances beyond his control, such as racial discrimination, systemic poverty, and inner-city lack of opportunity, all of which I felt powerless to change.
I picked at my fancy chicken dinner, wondering if the man would sleep in a shelter that night, if he’d find his way to a soup kitchen or food bank, or if he’d be on the same sidewalk, waiting to rebuke me again after dinner. Our waiter returned my unfinished meal wrapped in foil, shaped like a swan, before tucking it inside a paper bag. I held it to my chest as my husband and I walked back to our hotel in the drizzle.
I scanned corners and doorways, looking for the homeless man, ready to hand him my bag of leftovers. It was a paltry peace offering, but enough, I hoped, for him to remove his judgment of me, that “heartless,” might be replaced with “thank you,” or “bless you,” to ease my conscience once my husband and I stepped into the warm and welcoming hotel lobby.
I looked, but the man was gone.