Monday, August 4, 2008

Real Charity Isn't Always What's Easy

I'm walking to the grocery store; it's August and hot in the city. I have four, chilled Reese's Peanut Butter Cup miniatures in my bag.

Well, I DID have Reese cups in my bag. I had just savored the third one, as I approached a homeless man on the sidewalk near Seward Square.

I recognized him. He's usually near 5th and Pennsylvania Avenue, SE. He's always dressed for winter, even in 90 degree weather. He's black, in his 50s, always friendly. The last time I passed him, he greeted me boldly, and I gave him a Reese cup. I felt good about it.

Today was no different. I saw him getting closer and closer as we walked toward each other. I thought, "How nice. Here's my last Reese cup. I'll give it to him." Plunging my hand in my bag, I reached for the candy.

He stared into my eyes as I reached to hand off the candy as before. Would he remember me? No matter.

He said, "Hello, Ma'am. Would you please spare 90 cents for me to buy some water?"

In an instant, I said, "I don't have it." I let the Reese cup fall into his arthritic palm. He smiled and thanked me earnestly for the treat.

As I walked away, I felt awful. Conscience had pierced me. What if he collapsed in the next 20 mins, for lack of water, having eaten that Reese cup? I hadn't helped him at all. I did what was easy and convenient for me, and told myself that I was being helpful. He asked me for help, and I refused. What occurred to is not about me, my feelings, my convenience. It's about someone else. Charity means truly helping - not just giving blindly and hoping it helps.

How many others, like me, tell themselves that they are helping people, when the real impact of their efforts is very minimal? Or they give something that's not needed. But they give anyway because it's easy and feels good.

I'm here at the grocery store now. I'm going to buy an extra bottle of water.

**90-minute-later update: I did buy that bottle of water. I walked back along my original route and saw him. Sitting on a park bench, he looked at me and smiled. I pulled the bottle of water out of my bag. Condensation dripped from it; it was so cold, relative to the heat and humidity of that Monday afternoon. He reached for it, his gnarled hands eager.

"I was thinking of you," I said, with a smile. "Thank you, thank you!" he said.

I walked off. "Miss Lady!" he said.

I turned around.

He blew me a kiss.

I blew him one back, turned, and kept walking.