When I was young, someone told me a story about Jesus, perhaps based on a saying by Mother Teresa. He could be anywhere, wearing any disguise, watching what I was doing and seeing if I was living a good life. Specifically, this incarnation of Jesus might one day show up at my door, dressed as a beggar, asking for help. I might have the choice – turn the beggar away, or take him in and offer him a meal and my friendship. I might never know that the beggar was really Jesus in disguise, but one day, I’d get to the pearly gates of heaven to find that our interaction had been recorded, my kindness (or lack thereof) noted.
The story was a kind of version of Beggar Russian Roulette, really, because it wasn’t told correctly. Maybe it was because the teller was talking to a kid, or maybe the teller didn’t care about the poor, and only really wanted to impart the importance of hedging ones bets. I’m not sure who told me the story, but knowing what I know about everyone who shared religion with me as a kid, the odds of the latter option are far greater.
Either way, the story is still buried in my subconscious, rising to the top every now and then. Any beggar could be Jesus, so better stay vigilant! In my imagination, Jesus leaps up, throws off his crusty old man disguise and does a peppy musical number. That would be so cool.
Since I’m not a Christian, none of the above really matters to me, other than being a funny little aspect of what goes on in my weird brain. What does matter to me still is the underlying message. We need to be nice, and especially to the people that make us most uncomfortable. Stepping out of your comfort zone is how you broaden your horizons, and sharing a kindness is how you build roadways into those horizons, for as far as the imagination can conceive and beyond.
So I try to do good things. I don’t do as many as I should, but I’m working on it. And what happened today was a stunning reminder that I need to work harder, and keep stepping out of my comfort zone.
Each day, I walk home from work. It’s a short walk, only about four city blocks, including a stretch of road that runs under an overpass. I’m lucky to live just past the nicest under-overpass walkway that there is, probably in the whole city. It’s not at all sketchy, it’s well lit, and there’s plenty of traffic, both auto and pedestrian.
Today as I approached the overpass, I saw a young woman panhandling, showing a cardboard sign to passing cars. She was about my age, and as I got closer, I could see that she had a very sad, sweet face. There are a lot of panhandlers in New Orleans. Some are on drugs. Some, like one man who hangs out near my home in the mornings, are mentally unbalanced. A decent handful are gutter punks, people who have actually chosen to live on the streets as an alternative lifestyle (which I don’t get, but whatever). A lot of these people have a hardness about them that’s easy to spot. Many are just hopeless. Some have adopted a wild, ruthless mentality, an edge. It helps them survive on the street, but it also makes for dangerous wildcards.
This woman didn’t fit into any of those groups. I can’t exactly put my finger on it. She might have been just rolling through, but she didn’t have a hardness to her. As I walked up to her, she met my gaze and seemed very clear of mind. I knew that I didn’t have any money, but I looked through my bag again, just in case. I willed there to be a dollar, but nothing came up. She tried to brush me off in a sweet, shy way. “That’s OK,” she said.
I asked if she was hungry, and her eyes widened. I could feel her reaching her mental “feelers” out and realizing that she was ravenous. It had been awhile. I remembered that I’d packed a protein bar this morning, so I happily dug that out of my bag and gave it to her.
“It’s not much,” I said, shrugging my shoulders and handing her the bar, “but it’s something.” We shared a smile for a split second. Then without really knowing why, we both stepped in at the same time and shared a hug. It was awkward, but nice. She told me “God bless you” and I said the same, then wished her well and turned to walk away.
I’d made it a few steps away when I heard her call me in her small, timid voice – “Hey ma’am?”
I turned around to see if I’d dropped something, and our eyes met again. Her face was serious again, and full of concern. Something about her expression said “older sister” to me, though I don’t have any siblings, so the thought is quite foreign. She pointed at me with the protein bar. “You be careful out here, OK?”
I can’t recall the last time someone has given me a gift so precious as that one line of honest, selfless concern. What’s a protein bar when compared to that amazingly beautiful gesture?
In a few words, she taught me the old lesson, all over again. You never know who it is that you’re helping. Just do what you can, when you can, and do it with no expectations. You might be pleasantly surprised.