Irritated that my day had gotten away from me and mad at myself that I hadn’t taken the time to make lunch to take to work as I usually do, I finally found time in late afternoon to duck out of work to go to the organic market a few blocks from where I work.
On nice days, I can walk to the market in ten minutes, grab a healthy lunch from the soup and salad bar, and make it back to work within half-an-hour to eat lunch at my desk. Such is the glamorous life of a person who works in central services for a large school system near our nation’s capital. Before I came to work here, I thought that these employees, whose lives were not regulated by bells as teachers’ lives are, went out for leisurely lunches in a civilized way as teachers can only do on professional days when school is not in session.
After 30 years of teaching and seven years of working to support teachers, I have learned that most public employees feel too guilty to take long lunches on a taxpayer-supported salary. Teachers, on the whole, tend to be rule-followers who have a strong sense that they need to hold themselves accountable to the people they serve.
So I sighed, grabbed my keys, and got into my car for the three-minute drive to the organic market that offers free parking for an hour. I power-walked to the salad bar, filled a recyclable paper container with spinach and other healthy veggies, grabbed a cup of healthy soup, and made it back to my car in less than ten minutes. I unlocked the car, put my soup and salad on the passenger seat, and reached to pull the door closed.
“Ma’am?” I heard.
I looked up to see a man on the sidewalk, an outdated flip-phone held to one ear.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but I’m out of gas,” he said, gesturing to the gas station across the street.
I followed the direction of his hand to see an SUV parked at the entrance to the gas station. But the pumps were out-of–service, surrounded by yellow tape as the station awaited new gas pumps.
I hesitated as he continued. “I’m trying to call AAA,” he said, pulling the phone away from his ear and gesturing in frustration, as if no one was answering on the other end.
I looked at him in silence for a split second, and he came in for the kill. “Could you please just spare $3.50 so I could get a gallon of gas?”
$3.50, I thought to myself. It’s not going to bankrupt me, and it’s not going to help him buy a car like mine. I dug into my purse, and pulled out four crinkled and worn $1 bills, handing them to him over the door of my car and hoping he wouldn’t come around the door and carjack me or steal my purse.
“God bless you, ma’am,” he said. “I appreciate this more than you can imagine.”
“You’re welcome,” I croaked, sliding into the driver’s seat, closing the door, and locking the car. But by the time I backed out of the parking space, the man had disappeared around the corner.
Damn! I whispered into the air of my closed car. As I drove the short distance back to my office, I kicked myself for doing what mental health experts in our area tell us we should never do—give money to people on the street who were likely to be soliciting money to buy cheap drugs like heroin.
I parked at my office and put my head on the steering wheel, trying to breathe. I thought of my brother and sobbed.
Today my brother would have been 54 years old. But seven years ago, he died of a drug overdose. Like the man I had given money, he sank to the level of asking others for small amounts of money in order to obtain various drugs. He had perfected ways to get others to support his habit, sometimes by getting small amounts of money from many people; sometimes by getting larger sums from our mother, who could never say no to him; sometimes by going to overworked VA doctors, who prescribed drugs for him.
I wondered whether the man I’d given money would now be on his way to the high that would kill him, whether he would die as my brother had died. I wanted to believe that he really was out of gas, that he really was trying to call AAA. I thought about how often Jesus helped people whose morals were suspect—how often he showed faith in people who didn’t deserve it. And I whispered a prayer that God would somehow minister to the man I’d given money and keep him from my brother’s fate.
I wept. I wanted to believe that those four dollars would somehow be multiplied as the loaves and the fishes were for the disciples—that that man would somehow be fed and nourished as the multitudes were fed and nourished by those few loaves and fishes.
This is our world. We have to be skeptical of those who would be more damaged than helped by our gifts. But we also have to find ways to give to those in need. So how do we feed the hungry?