Thursday, January 13, 2011

Helping, Just Because

I started writing this a few days ago, after becoming enthralled with the story of the man with the golden voice, Ted Williams. I have always pushed and encouraged friends and family to give to people in need, especially those on the street. I was so happy to see that someone finally did, and that the miraculous results were being broadcast nationwide. I was touched by Mr. William’s statement that the $20 the reporter initially gave him was almost as miraculous as his multiple job offers and television appearances. I was humbled and inspired by his story. I had such hope that this story, and this man, could finally change people’s outlook on helping the homeless. Unfortunately, many have found a way to not only blame Mr. Williams for his mistakes, but also to use his mistakes as an excuse not to help anyone.

But, what really pushed me to finish this post was a Facebook discussion with a dear friend last night. She asked what she should do to help a homeless woman she encountered on the street. Many people responded to her with comments like “leave her be” and “she probably just wants money.” These comments broke my heart. When did we become a “leave her be” society? When did it become acceptable, and even encouraged, to pass by someone who is cold and hungry and do nothing?

People were upset that this friend had offered the woman something, which she did not accept. I don’t understand why we think a homeless person has to accept everything we throw at them. If a wealthy person comes to your home and offers you an item that you know you cannot or will not use, do you have an obligation to accept it, just because they have more money than you? Of course not. There are many reasons someone on the street may not accept what we offer. Maybe it’s too much to carry around, maybe they’re too proud to take it, and maybe they’re just as mistrusting of you as many people are of them. I’ve seen people offer a person on the street their half-eaten sandwich and then get upset when the person does not seem grateful. Why should they be? And even if it’s new food, why should the person trust that you are genuine and not trying to hurt them? If you spend your life on the street, being yelled at and having things thrown at you, it doesn’t give you the most faith in people. But, really, it doesn’t matter how the person reacts to your gift. All that matters is that you give.

Let’s talk about Ted Williams. He served in the military and was honorably discharged (which means he completed his duty). He’s been in many duty stations, including the one my family is at right now, and served an overseas assignment in Korea. But, then, he left his wife for another woman, he abandoned his kids, and he became addicted to drugs and alcohol. He was eventually introduced to crack cocaine, and was unable to pull himself out of the addiction. After being given the chance of a lifetime, some believe he has gone back to drinking and drugs, and possibly even violence. So yes, he has messed up in his life, and may continue to make bad choices. But, haven’t we all? Have any of you ever been given a chance and messed it up? I know I have. Several times. And we can’t expect someone to go from living on the streets, addicted to drugs, to being on every national television station, all within a week, and not have some ramifications. He’s a human being. Why can’t we all be a little understanding? I agree that his ex-wife, Patti, is a hero. She raised four children on her own, after being abandoned by her husband. But, even she has found a way to forgive him. So, what business do we have judging him? He deserved this chance. We deserve this chance to remember what it means to help. Hopefully he uses his new gifts wisely. But, even if he doesn’t, that should not turn us away from helping someone. It should encourage us to keep on helping, as much as we possibly can.

For those of you who are Christians, what do you think Jesus would think of comments like, “leave her be”? "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me." Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?" And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'" (Matthew 25:35-40) Does this mean nothing to us anymore? I truly believe that when Jesus comes back to us, He will not appear as a middle aged business man in a suit. He will appear to us as someone in need, possibly even someone on the streets. Will we pass Him by? Will we stop to question whether He’s worthy of our help? I hope not, for all of our sakes.

I have heard so many people say that they tried to help, tried to give food or clothing, and it wasn’t met with gratitude, so they stopped giving. But, that’s giving for the wrong reasons. I give to people in need, people I see on the streets, not because I expect anything in return, not even gratitude. It doesn’t matter if the person says ‘thank you’ or ‘screw you.’ It doesn’t matter if they use the money to buy cigarettes or a meal. What matters is that I gave, I offered my time and gifts. I offered the gifts that God has given me, as we are expected to do. Yes, the woman on the street probably did want money. So what? Don’t we all? Can you imagine not having any money? And I don’t mean not having extra, I mean not even having a quarter. Wouldn’t you also want, and need, money? Who are we to judge whether the person, or how they will use our gifts, is worthy? God continues to give us chances and gifts and blessings, even after we use them frivolously. Do we think we are actually more discerning of someone’s character than God? If you get nothing else out of this post, please hear this: Do not give because of what the person will do with it, or what you expect from him or her. Give because you can, and because at some point, someone has given to you.

Many people on the streets are war heroes, domestic violence victims, child abuse survivors, people just like you and I who have fallen on hard times. It could happen to any of us. Many of you are probably thinking, “yeah, but they should just get a job and work for their money, like I do.” Again, this is passing judgment. But, above that, it’s not that easy. Try applying for a job while wearing dirty clothing and without an address to list on the application. We currently have the highest unemployment rate that we’ve had in years. If people with homes, an education, and resources cannot find a job, how do we expect someone on the streets to do so? Sometimes what someone truly needs, above all else, is hope. And maybe you can provide that, just by stopping and asking, “is there anything I can do to help you?” Is that so hard?

I know that the people who said “leave her be” are not bad people. The people who keep on driving when they see a sign asking for help are not bad people. We have all been taught not to trust, to protect our own families and beware of everyone else. Especially during these hard times, we’re all making sacrifices, and guarding each penny. I’m not asking you to go bankrupt or mortgage your home to give. But, if we really think about it, we can all give something. If you’ve ordered pizza or bought a new pair of shoes or gone through a fast food drive through recently, you have enough to give. Don’t give what’s convenient or easy, give what you can. If you have $15 in your pocket, why can’t you give $10 of it (or, if you’re able, all of it)? If you need the $10 to buy food for your family, why can’t you give the other $5? Teaching your children the joy of giving is much more valuable than any toy you gave them for Christmas, or any happy meal you could buy them with that $5. I promise.

I remember once when I stopped to give a man on the street a $20 bill, and the pure shock and joy on his face was incredible. I was poor at the time, and $20 was definitely a stretch for me. But, I certainly had more than he did. I had it, and he needed it, so I gave it. He began to cry and thanked me for taking the time to stop. He wasn’t only grateful for the money, he was grateful that anyone actually cared. Knowing that I had done something to help him was so much more valuable than anything I could have bought with that $20. If I gave him some hope that people still care about him, that’s the very best gift I could ever give. No, I have not received that type of response from every person I’ve stopped to help, but that’s ok. I will keep on stopping and keep on giving, as long as I have the ability to do so, because it’s the right thing to do.

I know that I’m overly sensitive to this topic. I’ve been homeless, I’ve struggled, and I’ve fought to get to where I am today. I’m a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, as are so many people on the streets, and I was thrown out of my home at a young age. Thanks to caring friends and many blessings, I was not without a home for long. But, I know that I am no more deserving of the blessings I received than is anyone else. I know that I was given a chance to succeed so that I could help others, not so I could brag about how far I’ve come. I was not given these opportunities so that I could tell people to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps.’ I was given a chance so that I could be someone’s bootstraps. I would not have gotten anywhere but for the grace of God and kindness of others. And people who are currently on the streets have no hope of survival without our kindness, without our help and our love. Don’t we want to be the kind of society that, rather than asking “why should we help?” instead asks “why shouldn’t we?” Don’t we want to be the kind of society where people feel loved and supported, rather than disregarded, judged, and forgotten?

I’m asking you all to do one simple thing: think about all of the gifts you’ve been given. Think about the blessings you’ve received, even when you may not have deserved them. And now think about what you can do to return those gifts. Just try giving, try going out on a limb and offering a helping hand. If we all do so, imagine the difference we can make in our world. I promise you won’t regret it.

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