Why does the act of charity, in this case, the transaction initiated by a beggar or panhandler, feel so uncomfortable to me? Mental recriminations if I give (Did I just get ripped off? Did I give the right amount? Too little? Was that insulting?), guilt if I don’t (Yeah, I remember your sermon, King Benjamin). Perhaps it is because I don’t know the protocol, the expectations, and so I’m worried about an inadvertent transgression. And perhaps it is because I’m not sure that there is a clear protocol, a set of rules that bind and protect both me and the beggar. After all, the practically right thing to do is often contingent on context.
This morning, there was a young woman sitting by the entrance of my local Carrefour grocery store. I saw her, with her little plastic cup on the ground in front of her, and nodded in acknowledgement as I went in with my husband. She was still there when I went to the store later with my son. I don’t carry cash, so I had nothing to give her. (Note: we have no car, so we can only buy what we can carry in reuseable bags or our little trolley.)
Too often, I find myself avoiding eye contact as I give beggars a dismissive wave. I don’t want to raise false hope. Most beggars here are quiet, humble. They are not aggressive, and I’ve never felt threatened by them.
A few months ago, I was in a Dutch language class for new residents. One of the people I met there has been here for 18 months, and is still waiting for his refugee status to be accepted so he can get permission to work. The bureaucracy is slow. He is given a small allowance to live on by the state. For a month, it is about half of what I spend to buy groceries my family for half of a week. He won’t starve, and he is grateful, but his choices are very limited.
I remember when I was a young mother, and relatively poor. For a period of time, we had budgeted $100/month for groceries, gas, and laundry because everything else was going to pay for rent and medical bills. Some time after that, we were identified by the ward as a family in need of help, and the Relief Society president brought us a truckload of food from the Bishop’s Storehouse. I was deeply embarrassed because I felt like we were making it work, but we ate that food. They gave us household goods, too, laundry detergent and soap that I couldn’t use because of my sensitivity to chemical fragrances.
There have been times when, completely unexpectedly, some stranger has taken it on a whim to do me a favor. To pay for my meal at a restaurant, to buy a treat for my children (after carefully checking to be sure that it was okay with me). Such small acts have lifted my spirits, have made the day unexpectedly good, left me with a buzzy sense of well-being and love for my fellow humans.
So I walked back to the store and sat down on the pavement by the young woman. Here’s what I can see about her: she is clean and well-put-together, but her clothes and shoes are cheap and not new. She smiles at me, and we try to talk, but it turns out that we have only a few words in common amongst the different languages that we try. I understand that she needs food, and I finally persuade her that I would like to go into the store with her and buy her some groceries.
We get a rolling basket, and she walks into the produce section hesitantly. She holds up tomatoes. Yes. I put them in the basket. She looks through the carrots, and I help her bag some up. Cauliflower? Yes. We struggle it into a bag together, smiling and laughing. Is fruit okay? Yes. We load up with peaches, pineapple, grapes. We get potatoes and onions. The basket is getting full, but we keep going.
We get a couple of chickens, some ground beef and cutlets. Coffee, sugar, Coke. Cooking oil. Toilet paper, laundry detergent and fabric softener. Our arms are overflowing. I start carrying things to the front of the store, and she meets me, with some socks and underwear. When we check out, we fill three big bags (the Coke will be carried by its own handle).
When people have bought things for me, I’ve felt embarrassed, worried to choose what I want or need. But if I’m going to give someone a little shopping trip at the store, I’m not going to tell her, no, you can’t choose meat or laundry detergent. My goodwill should not strip her of the dignity of choice. I know the value of small luxuries, like a cold Coke or new socks. There can be great pleasure in small extraneous things that belies their frivolity.
I expect that this woman has some access to food and other things that she needs. Maybe she even has an abundance. But the odds are that she doesn’t have quite enough, and that she doesn’t often get to walk through a store, filling her basket with the good things that she needs and wants. And even if she does, why shouldn’t she enjoy the wonder of a small, unexpected generosity?
It was small. Our little spree cost less than a standard trip to Target in which I don’t get everything on my list but manage to come home with several things I didn’t realize I was going to buy.
I left her outside the store with her three bags and bundle of Coke. She said she could call someone to help her take things home. We hugged, kissing each other on the cheek. And I left the store for the third time today, this time walking home with my hands empty.
I write this not to elicit praise or condemnation. I write to consider how I help and have been helped, and to spread the sense of wonder and gratitude that I have felt today. It wasn’t that hard to act, to find a way to overcome my anxiety and hesitation to do something small that made the day a little nicer. It was a small grace that struck me, and I am thankful that I got to share it with such a lovely person. I hope that when such a grace strikes me again, that I embrace it. I find that I live in a better world when I do.