After my slot at Temple last Friday, I was driving through the back street of Philly when a most surprising thing happened:
I got to buy lunch for a homeless guy.
Now it has been about 4 years since the last time I was able to do this, when I lived in Cleveland. Now Cleveland is a much smaller, friendlier city, and I came close to perfecting a technique on how to separate the “sheep from the goats” in the panhandling arena.
Now because I am a follower of Christ, I take his words seriously regarding giving to those in need – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the incarcerated. I do not need to be of a particular political persuasion to have compassion for the poor. So when someone asks me for food on the street, I attempt to take them up on it. It is just so fun to buy lunch for someone who is hungry, because it is better to give than to receive.
And it can be a lot of fun too. I remember a game show called “SuperMarket Sweep” in which people have to stuff lots of food in their shopping cart. What I do is a pathetically scaled down version of the “bonus round” of that show. Without being disrespectful of the person I am helping or their plight, thinking of this interaction in terms of a game show helps me maintain an upbeat persona that assists in maintaining gentle control over the whole situation.
Unfortunately, there is a high proportion of people who choose their words rather sloppily, for when I take them up on their request for “food”, they flip-flop on me and expect “money for food” or “money” or something like that.
This guy, Lonnie, was soliciting “food” from a row of cars I was behind at a stoplight, which is a common occurrance in Philly. An effective means of fundraising for many seemingly legit organizations too. Very hard for motorists to avoid them.
Anyhow, he asked for food at my window just as the light turned green. I was running out of time, fast. I realized that I might have an opportunity on my hands to provide for the needy and even that it could be an “angel” (see Hebrews). I want to be faithful in my almsgiving, and took him up on it.
“GET IN THE CAR!” I said.
(Disclaimer: I am obviously very unique in this view. This is potentially dangerous. However I drive a 17 year old Honda and realize the key to panhandling situations is to 1. take control nicely of the situation and 2. allow the other party to be free to decline their original offer at any time, while 3. confessing Psalm 91 often)
So I took him to a tiny Philly corner market and announced to him that I would buy him all the food he wanted there, up to $10 worth of food. He immediate counter-offered to simply subcontract the allocation of these funds, to which I referred back to his original terms of request, “food”, and told him it was his decision whether he wanted food or not. Also I mentioned that I am not actually in control of the money, it is not “mine”, I am just a steward of it. I think he may have been annoyed by this, but he was the one who got us into this situation.
As we walked to the end of the block upon parking, he again attempted to solicit funds for cigarettes and a fake Rolex that was being sold on the corner. Again I referred to the original verbal terms of our agreement.
Here is where it got interesting: in Cleveland everyone, male or female, who I bought food for knew what to get: the Rotisserie Chicken! It made sense when I thought about it. Well remember, this is Philly, home of Rocky. I underwrote a gallon of milk, coke (a 2 liter of it), and 2 cartons of raw eggs. I thought “how is this guy gonna hard-boil his eggs?” But then I remembered that Rocky DRANK the eggs.
Lonnie only used up about $7 of food, and I attempted to avail him of the full amount. Turned out that he made a last attempt to cash in for the $3 that he didn’t use but it was too late and outside the terms of our deal.
The low point of the interaction was that he refused my offer to pray off his nicotine addiction. I said “I don’t mean to be disrespectful of your struggle, but I will pray for you and believe that God will break off the need for cigarettes”. He didn’t take me up on it, but I went ahead and prayed for him behind his back anyhow.
In my car at the next light, I turned my head toward a building and read the engraved words, “A HOUSE OF PRAYER”, zoomed out and it was a beautiful church with that verse on it. Go figure!