Several weeks ago, I had just finished eating dinner with my family when there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find a rather disheveled looking man holding a bag of canned goods. He extended his hand and introduced himself as “Vernon.”
I didn’t shake his hand.
“What can I do for you Vernon?,” I asked uninvitingly.
“Listen man,” he said, “Normally, I would never do this…”
As he began to tell me his story, I prepared myself to be underwhelmed. It’s not that I’m not compassionate to those in need around me, it’s just that there’s so many of them. And they all seem to have the same story: I’ve recently fallen on hard times, I just need a couple bucks for bus fare, I just need a little money for food, I don’t have any family in the area, I’m on “disability,” I can’t walk, I can’t work, and I can’t do anything to help myself.
Needless to say, I’ve heard it all before. It just sort of comes with the territory when you live in an inner-city neighborhood like ours.
But Vernon’s story was different. He told me that he just needed a few dollars to get on the bus to go to rehab. He had been using crack for a number of years and it was taking a tremendous toll on him. He decided that he needed to do something to make a change in his life, so he called a local rehabilitation center. They told him that they would admit him to their program if he could just find a way to get there.
I don’t know why, but the more I heard his story the more I began to soften up to him. Maybe I was caught off guard by the fact that he was admitting his drug problem. I hadn’t heard any “pan handlers” include that in their pitch before. It seemed bold to ask someone for money after you have already admitted to having and addiction.
For a split second I actually thought about taking Vernon to the treatment center in my car. I figured that way I’d know he was really getting the help he needed. But not wanting to risk my family’s safety, I decided that wasn’t the wisest option.
I told Vernon to wait outside for me while I went inside to see what I could do. A few minutes later I emerged with a plastic bag full of change that we had lying around the house. From what I could tell it looked like it had mostly pennies and nickels. “There’s not much in here,” I said, ” but there should be enough silver to get you on the bus if you need to go get help.”
I was content to leave it at that. He had what he came for, and I was looking to get back to my family. Then he broke down crying.
“I’m just so tired,” he sobbed. “I can’t take this anymore!” “I’m so hungry… so thirsty.”
I thought it was ironic that a man carrying a bag full of canned goods would complain about being hungry. But I decided that I could help him out by putting a little food in his stomach too. After all, we had just finished dinner and the leftovers would still be warm.
I told him to sit and wait again.
Moments later I emerged with a container full of hot leftovers, a plastic fork and a bottle of water. Vernon thanked me and began to leave. I was still a bit skeptical of Vernon’s story even as I watched him go. I replayed the entire exchange multiple times in my head, looking for any evidence that I had been duped. I even fought back feelings of fear as I wondered if maybe he was just trying to get a glimpse into our house to see what he could steal the next time we’re away from home.
As I sat there thinking about everything, Vernon eventually disappeared from sight. And then from my memory.
I had a choice to make that day. I could have ignored the knock at the door. I could have refused to give him anything. I could have treated him like the pan-handling bum I assumed he was. Sometimes, it’s hard to be discerning in these situations. When you pass these people on the street they’re easy to ignore. When they come to your door it’s another story.
As a follower of Christ I believe that we are called to care for the “least of these” in whatever capacity we are able. But our willingness to help is often deterred by our fear of the unknown. How do we know our offering won’t be used for drugs? How do we know we’re not just being lied to? How do we know we aren’t just enabling professional pan handlers and grifters? The fact of the matter is that often times we don’t. And that uncertainty often keeps our hearts hardened and our hands in our pockets.
The other day I was finishing up some work at the office when the phone rang. My wife was on the line. “Hey, you’ll never guess who just stopped by the house,” she said. “Vernon!”
It took a minute to register the name. It has been several weeks since he came by the house the first time and I had all but forgotten about him.
But, Vernon came back. This time looking much healthier and in much nicer clothes. He told my wife that he had just gotten out of rehab and is now clean and sober for the first time in fifteen years. He’s looking better, feeling better and has a whole new perspective on life. He stopped by the house just to thank us for helping him.
As it turned out, some leftover food, a bottle of water and a handful of nickels was all it took to give Vernon a new lease on life. And all I had to do was open the door.