When I lived in Baltimore, I regularly came across men, women, and children living on the street. Almost daily I’d see their dirty faces and the desperate look in their eyes as they watched me read their cardboard signs.
This story completely changed the way I read those signs.
The 5-Minute Story That Shook Me To My Core
An old boss of mine was eating a late lunch at a nearly-deserted Subway in DC. At one point he looked up from his footlong Italian sub to see a 40-something woman walk through the door.
She was filthy. Her knee-length skirt was stained and tattered, and her long hair was stringy from the absence of shampoo. She smelled of garbage.
The caddy of random belongings she wheeled behind her made it immediately apparent that she was homeless.
The woman sat down at a table across from my boss, and try as he might to avoid eye contact, their gazes eventually met. He smiled politely, but she didn’t smile back. She did, however, ask gruffly and curtly for $20.
Acting as he had been taught, my boss declined to give the woman cash, assuming she’d use it to buy drugs, alcohol, or some other substance he didn’t approve of.
But if she’d like a sandwich, he said, he’d be more than happy to buy her any one on the menu.
She didn’t want a sandwich. In fact, she grew visibly irritated at the suggestion, and got up in a huff and left.
The Surprising Reality
When my boss left the Subway, he was confronted with the homeless woman again; less than a block away she was curled up on the street next to her caddy of sparse belongings.
Curiosity got the best of him—he just had to know what she really wanted that $20 for, if not for a turkey and cheese sub smothered in mayo. Being the daring guy that he is, he knelt beside her and asked.
Her answer was surprisingly direct.
There’s a store down the street, she said—a little less gruffly than before—and it’s selling jeans for $20. I can’t go another night out here in this skirt…the men won’t leave me alone.
My boss was stunned as he realized that this woman, homeless and vulnerable in her skirt, was being sexually violated every night.
He had naively wanted to treat her to Subway; what she wanted was a pair of pants to better protect herself from sexual assault.
It was a request he never could have anticipated.
He gave her the $20.
Re-Thinking Our Assumptions
I find this story so jarring. It is a story about the assumptions and judgments we often make about people in need. It’s about how we automatically place blame and how we diagnose situations with which we are probably not familiar.
Thank goodness, I have never been homeless. So how would I know what a homeless person really needs? Why should I be the one deciding what’s best for them?
The most basic lesson I take away from the story is this:
Give freely, give compassionately, and give without judgment.
It is not up to me to decide who is or is not deserving of my help, for I can never know the whole picture. My job is simply to show compassion for those less fortunate than I am, in whatever way I can.
What’s your gut reaction to this story?
12 responses to “The 5-Minute Story That Changed My Whole Perspective on Giving”
It reminds me of what I taught my middle schoolers: the skin test. We never know what is going on under another’s skin. It matters not their clothes, facial expression, words, tone, etc..
Being respectful and observant at all times is a gift and a need.
I love the “skin test” concept. I’m going to remember that one, thanks!
I like this one, too. So simple to remember. 🙂
I don’t just give money to people unless The Lord tells me to do so. He has had me give money and even rides to people. I think the man seeing the woman a second time was God’s doing. Even when people aren’t Christians they can be prompted by God.
Of course we should not make assumptions about others and we should
realize that unless we interact with someone we won’t know their needs. That is why Jesus set the example of eating and drinking with sinners. How else can we know what is happening in a person’s life unless we take the time to hear their story?
Good point, Holly! Taking time to listen to people and hear their stories is absolutely key to showing compassion.
Things happen for a reason. Your boss encountered the woman for a second time because the initial connection was made, and he was destined to come to her aid.
A few years ago I tried to do what your boss did – offer a burrito instead of money – but the woman more-than-curtly told me she didn’t like f%^&n burritos. I laugh out loud at the story now, but I wonder what would have happened if I’d asked why she needed the money?
It’s hard to know when to stand on our own principles and gut reactions to a panhandler because some of us might suffer from guilt for having given money that promoted addiction. It’s also hard to know when we’ve given enough if we live in an area where panhandling is everywhere, all the time.
The level of poverty that makes a person need to panhandle speaks to the core of a very complicated social problem that shouldn’t exist in an affluent society.
I think giving generously (meaning from the heart, not always giving a lot of money) is a gift to ourselves as well as to the recipient. Feeling justified in the giving is a bit of a crap-shoot if we don’t take the time to know the person’s circumstances.But if we give, then judgement cannot be a part of what we hand out.
Excellent story. I would usually do what your boss did, but now my question will be “Would you like a sandwich, or is there something else I can get you?”
I was not expecting that. I would probably have done what your boss did, but I think there was a reason he ran into her again. This is a good reminder not to assume.
I had an experience in New Orleans one night, when coming out of a restaurant with my leftovers…a guy walked up to me and asked me if he could take those leftovers. He looked like any other guy you’d see- almost like a student- yet here he was asking me for my leftover food. He gave a rather eloquent speech on what it would mean for him to have my leftovers…so I just handed that food over in shock. I suppose the food was for him, but I never would’ve thought as much, judging by how neatly he was dressed. I still wonder…
Oh my. What a story! It went straight to my heart. Thank you for sharing! These are the lessons that I’m trying to teach my children.
I really appreciated this, Katie. And this:
“It is not up to me to decide who is or is not deserving of my help, for I can never know the whole picture.”