I sighed. I hate doing this, but I said to her, "I need you to tell me what you need or how I can help you." We don't have cash in the church and every situation is a case-by-case basis of how I can figure out if and how to help someone.
"I'm trying to collect money for gas to get to [place] to pick up my son. I have about $20. I go to [church in Anchorage], but no one's there. I've been driving around, trying to get money together."
I peeked out my office window. I can see her sitting in the church parking lot, in her car, looking frantic.
Here comes the part where people either hang up on me or take me up on an offer. "Okay," I reply. "We don't have any cash in the church, but if you go over to the Safeway- I'll meet you there and fill your gas tank."
- Pause -
"Seriously. The Safeway across the street. I'm parked behind the church right now. I need to get my things together and then I'll be over there in a big, green truck. I can fill your tank, but that's about all I can do right now."
"Oh my gosh, that's so much help. Thank you so much. Thank you..."
I gather my stuff and head to the truck. I feel jittery with the pressure of the decision. Is she lying? Is that important? Should I offer to get her some food as well?
I drive across the street to the Safeway. She's already parked next to a pump. She's counting change in her hand. I approach her open window, "Hi, you're trying to get to your son?"
She looks up at me, "Yes."
I walk around the car, put in my credit card, and start pumping gas. She gets out to thank me again. She tells me how far it is to the town and how this tank will get her there. She'll figure out how to get back once she's got her son. I ask who he is with and if he's okay. She names names and assures me that she knows how to get there.
She shivers in a tanktop. I can't remember if I have a spare jacket or sweatshirt in the car and then I remember I have my husband's truck. "Can't do everything," I tell myself as the pump cuts off, indicating that her tank is full.
She thanks me again. "Drive very carefully," I say. "Good luck. I'll say a prayer for you."
I walk away. I don't look back to see what direction she heads or what happens next. I don't want to know. I don't need to know.
A few weeks ago, a woman in the congregation I serve spoke to me about the panhandlers she passes when walking to work. She said she feels badly ignoring them, but she doesn't want to be in the habit of always giving out cash. And she doesn't necessarily want to encourage panhandling. However, she finds herself constantly wondering, "Am I ignoring Jesus when I walk by and give nothing?"
First, prayers aren't nothing. You can always pray for every person you encounter during your day, in whatever situation.
I expressed sympathy for her plight, having found myself in the same situation many times. Particularly when people call the church office, I have to decide, often in seconds, how to respond. Each response feels like a judgment on the person, even when it's a truthful statement about the church's current resources or my own.
I reminded this woman that she works for the Food Bank! She is aware and regularly participates in the community organizations and resources for people who need help. We acknowledge that, for a variety of reasons, not everyone is able to gain access to these resources, but they are there.
We also noted that we cannot respond to every request in the same way. She might decide on an amount of small bills to keep in a pocket to give out in a day or a week. When they're gone, they're gone.
In close proximity to this conversation (possibly even the same day), a homeless veteran (Desert Storm) stayed in the narthex of our church during the service. He came up to me after the service, after speaking to several parishioners. Long story less long, his PTSD makes it difficult for him to be in shelters. He wanted to stay in a hotel for one night, to have some peace and quiet, and to take a shower. Through a member of the congregation, we worked out a place for him to stay. I wrote a check for the place, but the manager comped the room when she found out what we were doing.
This veteran, a former military chaplain, gripped my hand just before two parishioners drove him to his accommodations. Looking me in the eye, he said, "Thank you for doing for the least of these."
My knees nearly buckled.
We are all doing the best we can. Weighing each encounter, attempting to discern truth, hoping that we aren't scammed, hoping that we aren't enabling, praying that our help actually helps.
Whatever the result, we are not called to stop helping. We are additionally compelled to think through our help, to weigh what seems best, and to ask God to help and guide us.
Penultimately, even in giving, we must still seek forgiveness for our debts and trespasses, forgiving those who are indebted to and have trespassed against us.
And, finally, this:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. 1 Corinthians 13:12-13 (Sounds different when we don't say love.)