One January day in downtown Phoenix, a man in his mid-twenties limped up to me and asked if I could buy him some lunch. After saying yes, I walked with him to Burger King, listening to his story:
He was in the Army, deployed to Afghanistan. After being there for six weeks, his leg got blown off right below the knee. He was sent home. The VA built him a prosthetic leg, gave him time to start healing, and sent him to a rehab hospital to strengthen his ‘new’ leg. He was there for five months and released to rebuild his life.
He had no family to rely upon to support him, since he was unmarried and his parents were dead. He was barely able to walk. For some reason, this young man was denied military disability benefits.
So this veteran who was wounded protecting my freedom was left homeless and begging on the street for a hand-out.
My emotions were in my throat as I listened to his story. I thanked him for his bravery in serving his country as he did, and asked him if he had any friends in the area. He pulled out a wrinkled piece of paper with a few names and phone numbers scribbled on it, most of them crossed off.
He said, “There are still a few names left on this list for me to call. Stan said I could stay with him after Christmas, so I should be okay for a few days now.”
He paused, then turned to me and said,
Thanks for treating me like a human being. It’s great that you’re buying me lunch, but better that you’re treating me as an equal and listening to my story. Most people just throw money down on the ground, like I am less than they are. You treated me with dignity.
Then this real-life hero who has more bravery in his left pinky fingernail than I have in my body bear-hugged me in Burger King. For a long time, almost long enough for it to be awkward. “So….about that food,” he said to reduce the weirdness. I bought him a Whopper and a gift card for another week’s worth of meals.
I walked out feeling good about myself
I had made a small dent in the darkness of this world…but it didn’t last.
A moment later another man stumbled toward me, reeking of alcohol. “It’s my birthday and I haven’t had a coffee in years. Would you buy me a coffee so my life has meaning again?”
I’d love to tell you I continued my generosity, that I bought him a coffee plus a gift card. But I didn’t. I am not even sure why, to be honest with you. It’s been over a year now, and I am still bothered by why I said yes to one man and no to another.
I knew he wanted a hand-out from the second he made eye contact with me, but I knew the same thing with the Afghanistan veteran too.
It could be I deemed him unworthy because of a toothy grin. Something about the way he grinned made me feel he was untrustworthy. But it isn’t his fault his smile looks the way it does.
I might have felt I had done my good deed for the day, that I had already served the less fortunate in my community. I don’t think I keep a mental tally of good deeds, but maybe I do and I just don’t recognize it.
Perhaps I heard echoes of my uncles from my childhood. They told me every time we passed a homeless man it was his own fault he wasn’t employed, and he was just a useless drunk or druggie anyway.
What I can tell you is this – every time I think of that toothy drunk man, I feel sorrow in my heart. In my heart, I believe that Jesus wouldn’t be turned off by slurred speech and a stumble. Yet I know if I came across this man today, I would probably respond in exactly the same way.
I am certain that feeding a war veteran for a couple days doesn’t make me a hero. Mostly, I just walk on by and live my own life. I know I am called to do more, but I feel so overwhelmed by the poor. I don’t know what to do, how to help, where to give.