The woman stood on the street, begging for money. I drove past her once, turned and went back. The sign she held got my attention: The first word was “Mom.” She was standing there by herself on a cold, gray, windy day.
She told me she lived in another town but came to this one to ask for money or gift cards. She didn’t want her 10-year-old to hear of what she was doing. Her neighbors loaned the use of their car to make the trip.
My impulse to turn around was prompted by long years spent as a single parent. We always had enough to eat, but there were about six times a year I had to plead with Commonwealth Edison to keep our power on until I could put together money to pay the bill. In those years before cellphones I remember leaving work for a few minutes to talk on public pay phones so no one in my office could hear my conversations. I was working a 40-hour week and was ashamed to be poor.
I gave the woman some money, shook her hand and left her standing in the cold.
Shaken by the incident, during the coming week I told several friends about it. Their reactions surprised me. They suggested I had been taken for a fool and that they would never be tricked by a woman like that.
Did I do the right thing?
Many years ago when I was a new, young wife and mother, I attended a family reunion picnic. The family, my step-grandmother’s, was made up mostly of farmers and factory workers. The women in those families brought so much food two picnic tables had to hold it. Fried chicken, potato salad, green beans, fresh applesauce, deviled eggs, pickles, banana cake, sweetened iced tea and more. A sumptuous meal — plus enough for an ample “supper” at Sunday afternoon’s end.
After we ate, and the women were visiting and men playing horseshoes, a slight man of about 40 approached the women. He talked with my grandmother and I saw her give him a paper plate and some utensils. She took the covers off the dishes and he helped himself to an ample plate of food. He went to the end of the tables and sat down by himself to eat. After he left, my grandmother said he had asked if we had any food to share. I hadn’t fully formed my adult values yet, and I said something defensive like, “Well, next time I see a picnic I am going to ask if I can eat with them too.” My grandmother just said, “He was hungry, Mary.”
Today I cringe at that, the same way I cringed then. Why was I reluctant to help him? How can we overcome the selfishness, arrogance and fear in our hearts? Must we ourselves experience need?
The Torah abounds in calls to welcome and care for the stranger, alien, outsider. Sikhs are famed for providing free meals for thousands. The Gospel, said Dorothy Day, forever ends our right to differentiate between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Islam, perhaps more than any major religion, enjoins its followers to feed the hungry. Faith challenges us to know our connection to every person around us.
Mary Watson is founder of the Arms for Peace Memorial in Pleasant Gap, administrator of Comfort Covers, volunteer at New Leaf Initiative and participant in Interfaith Initiative Centre County. For more information, contact InterfaithInitiativeCC@hotmail.com.