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Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby.  They were Bumpa’s favorites and when he was sick I’d spend Sunday afternoons by his side watching them sing and dance their way across the screen.  I spent a great deal of time that fall on the Road to Wherever.

I knew Hope could sing and dance and crack a joke, but who knew he was so clever?  I’m sure someone did but it wasn’t me.  I’d compartmentalized him in my memory.  Singing, dancing, funny man.

Compartmentalization is a huge problem in our world.  Us and them.  Republican and Democrat.  Liberal and conservative.  Deserving and undeserving.

I admit that I tend to get a bit squirmy when a discussion moves towards who deserves help and who doesn’t.  Haven’t we all received help at one time that we didn’t deserve?  Maybe someone helped you change a tire or pay a bill out of the kindness of their heart.  But there is also God’s grace.  We can’t earn it.  We don’t, strictly speaking, deserve it.  But God is loving and kind and charitable.  He gave it to us anyway.

I’m not saying I’m perfect.  Far from it.  We writers compartmentalize all the time.  It’s part of how we pitch ideas and decide what information belongs in a project and what doesn’t.  Sometimes this writing habit finds its way into the larger world.  Sometimes I catch myself.  Other times?  I’m human but I like to think my heart is willing.


I’m still working my way through Waking Up White and one of the most interesting chapters so far was the one on the Robin Hood syndrome – riding in to fix a problem without actually communicating with anyone who will be affected.  The problem is that when you do this, you run the risk of “helping” in a way that disempowers.  You are telling someone that you know how to fix them without speaking to them.  Their input must be valueless.

The end of the chapter challenged readers to check their favorite charity.  Is the director someone from the community being helped?  Or are they a white person living in a tower far, far away?

I have to admit that I was more than a little nervous.  I had no clue who was in charge of Heifer International.  After doing a little poking around, I was relieved to see that the Board includes someone from every region within the program.  This doesn’t mean that things are perfect, but an effort is being made.

Finding out how someone really and truly needs our help is tough.  It will take more than just asking questions because people in need are often accustomed to being ignored or belittled.  Why respond? They aren’t going to hear me anyway.

The solution is to get to know people.  Walk among them.  Eat beside them.  Take their hands.  There’s a reason Christ spent so much time talking to the outcasts and not just telling the religious leaders what to do.  He was here to lead the way.


He was sitting on the curb in front of the barbecue restaurant. White haired, simply dressed but clean. Alone. Was he trying to catch my eye? It was hard to tell. His glance was quick, pleading, afraid. “Do you need some help?” I asked him, seeing that he was shivering. (It was cool, but not cold — was it Parkinson’s? Delirium tremens?)

“I have nowhere to go,” he said. “I’ve been living under that bridge [gesturing]. I don’t have any money. I can’t even catch a bus.”

As my husband trotted off to the car to get one of the bags we carry with us to give to those less fortunate than ourselves (we haven’t got the right ingredients down just yet; the ones we’re carrying now hold money, a first aid kit, a hands-free flashlight, wet wipes, breath mints, a meal replacement bar and an emergency camping blanket), I listened.

“I’m scared,” he said. “I don’t know what to do.”

“We’re going to give you some things you might need.”

“I’ve been trying to get someone to buy me something to eat.”

“Oh! What would you like?”

“Anything! A sandwich. Anything.”

I gave him a “blessing bag” and went inside, where we ordered him a large sandwich with slaw and a bottle of water. When I went out to give it to him, he seemed startled. He kept saying, “Thank you.” I kept saying, “I’ll pray for you.” By the time we finished eating, he was gone.

This is not about doing a good deed for someone. In fact, it’s rather the opposite. In this man, I saw the face of God. What would you do for God? What wouldn’t you do? And yet I know what I did was not enough. Could I have taken him to a shelter? Where is our local shelter? Would they have had a bed for him? How would that have helped him tomorrow or the next day or the next?

I realize, of course, that most of the people we’ve given bags to are panhandlers rather than actual homeless people. They probably throw away everything but the money. But I have a feeling the man we met last night was the real McCoy. And I failed him.

Yes, I believe prayer is powerful. And I am keeping my promise to him by praying for him. But I could see in his eyes, even as I said the words, “How is that going to help me right now?”

I saw the face of God and was unprepared. But isn’t that the way of things? Won’t we always be surprised by where and how we see God? Won’t we always be unready?

As we drove home, I noticed a garbage bag tucked into the corner of the underpass he’d earlier indicated. Were those his belongings? Maybe. If I go back there, will I find him? What do I have to offer him? Am I willing to open my home to him? (And if I’m not, aren’t I saying, “You are the face of God except maybe not”?)

I wish I had answers. Instead I can only tell you: Look for him — not the man I described, but for God. And try to do what you can. May you fare better than I.

Remember the greater good? It sent us to war against the Nazis. It induced us to pay taxes to build interstate highways and fund police and fire departments. It rings out melodiously every time we sacrifice for the good of others.

The common good seems to have gone out of vogue, along with war bonds and victory gardens. Today, it’s every man — or woman — for him/herself. The scrabble to have and keep what we’ve collected, as if life were a giant game of Monopoly, takes precedence over pretty much everything else. There are towns in Indiana where the paved roads are so pitted and ruined, they’ve been ground up into gravel and left that way. There’s no money to pay for their improvement. That might mean a tax increase, and the words “tax increase” hold roughly the same degree of distaste as the words “full body cavity search.”

We’re like a bunch of sullen teens, griping at the world-at-large, “Don’t come in my room, Mom and Dad. Gah! Can’t you just leave me alone?” Well, guess what, kids? You’re living under God’s roof now. And as long as you are, you’d best follow His rules.

As people of God, we’re asked to act for the common good. As 1 Corinthians 13 tells us, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” And while a tinkling cymbal may sound pretty, it’s not gonna get you seats at Sardi’s, if you know what I’m saying. Effecting change for the better takes a much bigger set of lungs.

Charity isn’t easy. I know this. Thinking of the common good means abnegating your own selfish wants and needs in favor of what we all need: as a community, as a country, as a world. And every time the scope expands, the amount that’s asked of us increases…and it hurts just a little bit more. It doesn’t help that most of us are so struggling to get by that we hardly have the energy to look beyond our own nests.

But there are things we can do that cost little in terms of our time and bank accounts. We can vote for those who will ensure better conditions for the most people. We can refrain from selfish pursuits that will benefit us at the expense of others. We can pray for change. And we can stand up to corporations, banks, governments and yes, churches, that prey on the weak or take more than their share, or ignore the root causes of poverty in favor of patriarchal control. (Just sayin’.)

It’s time for the common good to come back into favor. If we all push a little, we can move mountains.


Have a Mary Little Christmas

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