"To whom much is given, much is required."
I know we've all heard that, and on some levels I know that the people whom I choose to call friends generally believe that.
But what does it really mean? What does giving back really look like?
I tend to feel comfortable in my "giving back" because I work for a company that only works with nonprofits and foundations who are working toward progressive causes. The work I do might seem insignificant, but in some small way, I tell myself, I'm helping those organizations. Thus, I'm helping the people that they help. On top of that, I'm on the board of a local charter school and on the board of the Baltimore Urban Debate League, both of which are doing their part to help young people in the city learn, grow and thrive. So that's helping, right? And every year we've been married, Lester and I have given to a number of progressive organizations/causes/campaigns.
But is that enough?
In the past two weeks, two different things have happened to me that have lingered on my mind and in my heart far longer than I would have expected.
First, a homeless man outside of Starbucks asked me for money. If I have cash/change, I almost always give something to people on the street who ask. This day was no different, but I needed to get change first, so I told him "On my way out, I will." He nodded. When I came out with my coffee, I handed him $2, smiled and kept walking, hurriedly, to my car. I heard him call out behind me, "Thank you." And then, "My name's Joseph, by the way."
I felt like I'd been hit in the chest. Heat rushed to my face. I turned and looked at him, sitting there, making himself small. He was older than me, but not old, despite his salt and pepper hair. He looked almost dignified, wrapped in a scarf, his legs crossed. I said, "Hello, Joseph," and got in my car.
I felt like crying and I wasn't sure why. The biggest thing I felt was ashamed: I felt comfortable giving him money, when what I should have given him was respect.
This has been on my mind ever since. The image pops up in my head at the strangest times. It plagues me while I sleep. Joseph. Not "a man who needed money." Just a man. A human. Joseph.
Then, this week, I was paying for my parking at a meter downtown, on my way to a board meeting. A young man, maybe 17 or 18, came running up to me with a badly-stitched-together story about how he needed money to catch the bus, but only had a credit card, so could he pay for my parking with his card and I just give him cash. "It'll be half the price for you," he said, salesman-like.
I could see the bruise marks on his arms. And I knew in my heart that credit card was stolen. But I could feel his desperation and the fading remnants of what must have been, at one point, his dignity. I had just read an article about addiction and its overpowering effects. I wanted to be indignant about how I would NOT support his drug habit or his stealing. But I just couldn't. I felt sorry for him.
And in that brief moment that he saw my pity/sadness for him, he pounced. He aggressively swiped the card, pushed the button for the parking ticket, held his hand out for my cash, said his thanks and ran off to the next person parking a few feet down the block. It happened really, really fast.
The transaction was a blur, but his face is not. I see it clearly in my mind several times a day. His drawn face, blue eyes, dirty curls flopping around his forehead. He looked like a little boy.
I know now -- after thinking and thinking and thinking about it -- I should have just given him the cash, and not allowed him to use that credit card. I went wrong there. I wish I could take that part back.
But, oddly, I don't feel bad about giving him the money. And I don't know why. I keep re-winding that scene, thinking, "Is there any way that boy wasn't a heroin addict (and a fairly new one at that?)" But no. He was. And he was also someone's son. A human, with a name. I wish I knew what it was.
Clearly, I have no obligation to give money to drug addicts, or to support criminal activity in any way.
But I have been thinking a lot - for some reason - about that encounter with him and just what my obligation was in that moment. I'm pretty sure I failed, using almost any measure. But I truly don't know what the "right" thing should have been.
In any case, these two moments in time, sharing a few words with two men who have far less than I do, have been seared into my brain and heart. I can't stop thinking of Joseph and parking-meter-boy.
I pray that over time God will show me the right way to give back some of the privilege I've been given. Not just in chance encounters on the street, but in a real, substantial way.
"Teach us to give and not to count the cost."
- Saint Ignatius