I met a man today. It was a spontaneous trip to the Krispy Kreme, and we were sitting in the drive-through, locked in our place. We could see him, working his way down the line of cars, the red jacket bending over as he stopped at each car window. We knew what he was about. We could see it coming. I pointed him out to my friend, and she locked the door. We steeled ourselves for the oncoming conflict. One more and it was our turn.
How do you ignore a man outside your car window, wearing a had and a hood and at least two jackets? How do you sit in line at a donut drive-through and yell through a window that you don’t have any money? The truth is, we didn’t have any money. She had no cash at all, and all I had was the single twenty I was preparing to sacrifice on the altar of a half-dozen box. There was no way I was going to be giving my last bill to a dirty stranger. But the one thing you can’t do is lie. She rolled down the window.
The guy was apologetic, and polite. He kept repeating himself. “I’m sorry, sir. I to be doing this, ma’am. I don’t wanna be no trouble, sir. But it’s cold. It’s cold, so what I’m doing is… what I’m doing is walking down this… It’s cold, so I’m asking people, whatever they can give. I wanna go into a restaurant so I can get warm. I don’t wanna be no trouble or anything. I’m sorry, ma’am.”
There are certain cries the Christian must respond to, if he wants to call himself a Christian. One of those is the cry of the helpless when there is anything he can do to ameliorate the situation. He wasn’t even panhandling for money, really. He didn’t want food so much as he wanted out of the cold. I asked him if he wanted us to get out of the line and go into the donut shop and share our donuts with him so he’d have an excuse to be in the warm.
“No man, I don’t want no donuts. I need real food. I wanna go into a restaurant and get some real food so I can get warm. It’s cold out here!”
“Oh, so, like McDonalds, or Wendy’s up the road here.”
“I’m sorry, sir?”
“A restaurant? Like McDonalds or something?”
“Yeah. McDonalds is good.”
“Well, tell you what: Hop in the car and we’ll go to McDonalds or Wendy’s or something”
“Oh, no sir. I don’t get in nobody’s car that I don’t know. Momma told me never get in nobody’s car that I don’t know. My momma died and now I got nothin. And I can’t trust nobody. I’m sorry to be doing this to you, ma’am. I don’t wanna be no trouble. They just dropped me off here, and so I’m just trying to get some money so I can get warm. It’s cold and I’m…I’ve got three coats on….” He started to unzip and show his layers.
“Ok,” I said, reaching into my wallet. I was convinced. This was no panhandler. This was just a guy who was cold. “All I’ve got is this twenty, and I can’t give you that. When I get through to the other side of this line, though, I’ll give you something.”
“If you’re just trying to get rid of me, that’s okay, I’ll just move on, I mean, I don’t want to be no bother. I’m just…”
“No, we’re not trying to get rid of you,” Valerie said.
“No, I just need to get some change, is all,” I said.
“Ok.” He wandered off, away from the line of cars.
“Do you think he believed us?” Valerie asked.
“I don’t know. I hope he doesn’t just leave.”
“Maybe we should just go in.”
“Do you think I’d be faster?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” The cars in front of us finally started to move.
“Here we go. I think he did believe us. Or he would have gone on to the next person.” I looked into the back seat. The only article of clothing was a sweatsuit I’d used to sleep in at a friend’s house the night before.
“He doesn’t need any more clothes. He needs a place to stay.”
“Yeah. But he won’t get in the car, so we can’t take him any place.”
“Doesn’t matter. I don’t even know where any shelters are. We can’t let him stay in the dorm: they won’t let us.”
“Did you smell alcohol on his breath?”
“I think so.”
“Doesn’t really matter, though, does it? ABC store is closed.”
“I think the closest one would be a really long walk away anyway.”
“Well. At least he’d get warm. But even if he was going to get drunk…”
“Yeah. At least he’d be warm. I think he’s on the other side over there, by the IHOP”
“IHOP’d be better than McDonalds. Here. When you get the change, give me a the ten and I’ll run up and get him before he gets away.
She gave me the bill and jumped out of the car. But there was no worry. The guy had believed me and was waiting patiently by the IHOP building.
But this is where it gets tragic, and I wish I could remember the words. I gave him the ten and told him it was a ten, but he didn’t go in. More than he was cold and hungry, he needed a friend. He apologized again, and told me how cold it was. He told me about his friends that said he could stay with them, but kicked him out after a few weeks. He talked about his mother dying again. I asked him when she died, and he couldn’t remember exactly. A month ago, maybe, he said. I couldn’t bear to ask if she had had the dignity of a funeral. He told me again, how it was cold and how he had lost his only family. “My momma was all I had” he said at one point. I think that was about where he started to cry. People told him to go the shelter, but the shelter was full. The Salvation Army was full, and they made you fill out all these forms. “I got ID, man” he said, and pulled out his wallet and showed me his license. The man in the picture looked so self assured and secure, hardly the hatted, hooded man that was in front of me. He told me his name. Twice, he told me, but I never quite understood what he said.
When he looked like he was about to go away, and had said everything he was going to say at least once, I decided to take the risk. I offered to pray. I don’t know why I thought it was a risk. People in that position are open to any kind of help they can get. But it was a risk for me. I suppose if I had been better prepared, I could have used the opportunity to share the gospel with him. I didn’t. I couldn’t see how the sorts of things that would lead me to salvation would be very useful to him. What good is prophecy fulfilled and the freedom from the shame of sin and divine purpose of every man, to a guy who can’t think about much more than the fact that he’s lonely and he’s alone and he’s hungry and cold? I guess I could have talked to him about how He’s Jehovah Jireh, the God who is looking out for you. I could have done a spiritual sis-boom-bah about how it was God who sent me to him. But frankly, I would have liked it better if He could have sent somebody who could have actually gotten him a place to stay. I wasn’t even allowed to let him into my own house. So I prayed a simple prayer. I prayed something along the lines of “Father, help!” I prayed for direction for him, to find a place to stay and a way to keep warm and fed. I prayed for food. I prayed for better help than me to come.” When I finished, he said “And protection. I’m from the country. The city scares me. I’m afraid somebody’s going to hurt me.” So I prayed again, for a shield around him, for safety, and for angels on every side to guard and protect him. It was a prayer of faith, because I didn’t feel a single goose bump. It was a prayer of weakness, because being with this man made me feel weak. I was so aware of how little I could do to help.
When I was finished, he said to me, in his repetitive sort of way, that his momma had told him that white people didn’t like him. I tried to say, that although some white people didn’t like him, I had no problem with him. But it came out wrong, and I could tell I was interrupting. He told me that although his momma said that white people didn’t like him, it was the black people, his friends, who had kicked him out of their house, and it was white people who had given him money and given him clothes. I think this is where he said that “Momma was all I had” and really started to cry. Valerie had circled around twice and was parked across the street. I went to her and got some napkins for him to wipe his eyes, and told him that I had to go. “Why you have to go?” he asked. I couldn’t give him a very good answer, except that I had work to do, which really wasn’t very true, since I knew that my chance of getting much work done after this was pretty slim. But as he dried his eyes, he finally turned to go toward the front of the restaurant. There wasn’t anything left for me to do, so I got back into the warm car, and we drove to our warm school dorms, and on the way, we ate our fresh warm donuts. There wasn’t really anything else to do, but to pray and feel bad that there was so little we could do.
Jesus said, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do also to me,” and there’s a whole host of prophets that talk about the importance of showing mercy and justice to the poor. But when the problems stand up and get right in your face, it’s almost impossible to imagine what you could do that would ever be enough. I know what that man needs. He needs good food and a warm, clean place to stay. For about six months, he needs nothing but stability and compassion and the gospel of Jesus Christ. You could say that would be enough to make him human, but socially speaking, it would make him little help to anybody else. He needs education; he needs to be taught how to behave and how to keep a job, maybe even how to start his own little business somehow. He not only needs the seed put in him, but to have his ground tended, so that when the seed springs forth, it will have somewhere to go. I couldn’t give that to him tonight, but I pray that will lead him somewhere where he will get it.
I suppose there’s a certain kind of Christian who from here would want to launch a juggernaut. He wants to petition the government to create an agency to help people more effectively than they already do; or he wants to launch his own ministry, create another Salvation Army, expand services somewhere. But I’m a bit more conservative than that, and don’t trust large organizations to do my work for me. All I can think about is how someday I want to be rich. I want to have a spare room in my house, completely separate from the rest of the house, with an outside door and everything, so I can invite people like this, that I don’t know, into my house without making the people afraid that I’m responsible for. I want to be in a position where I feel that I really can help somehow.
I met a man today. I couldn’t really help him. But he reminded me, at least, of where my focus needs to be.
The least of these is hungry.
The least of these is sick.
The least of these needs clothing.
The least of these needs drink.
The least of these knows sorrow.
The least of these knows grief.
The least of these has suffered pain,
And Jesus is His name.