We are here to help each other.
By Tim Moody
I saw him as I pumped gas in my car at the Shell Station. It was hot outside and he was sitting in the shade in front of the convenience store. An older man, thin, African American, with a scruffy two or three-day growth of white stubble and shaggy salt and pepper hair. As I walked into the convenience store to get a soft drink he smiled at me with uneven teeth. There was a warmth in his smile. He didn’t ask for anything. But I knew he was there to accept any change anyone might give him.
I returned to my air-conditioned car and stared at him for a minute. As I drove out I went around to where he was and rolled down my window. I motioned for him to come over. He slowly got up and walked to my car. “Yes sir?” he said. I handed him some cash and said, “What is your name, friend?“ He said, “Carl.” I said, “You have a good day, Carl.” He smiled and put his hands together and bowed and said, “Oh, God bless you, sir. God bless you.”
I don’t know his situation. But whatever it is I felt an urge to connect with him in some small way. I wanted to know his name. A name carries our identity. It’s the
one thing we own that is ours. When others say it, it means we have been noticed.
I thought how difficult it would be at my age to sit in the summer heat outside, with few resources, perhaps hungry, or in poor health, as Carl seemed to be, and have to wait until someone offered me some coins. How humiliating to have to keep from outright begging for something, just quietly hoping a stranger might be willing to let go of their loose change or maybe a dollar and give it to me.
I know there are con men out there, guys with their tattered signs, claiming to be vets, asking for a handout. Others are genuinely needy. Some can barely stand, already drunk or high, just waiting for a few bucks to keep the buzz going.
I see them all the time. Women, too. People broken by life. Shamed and pathetic. Their bodies ravaged by alcohol abuse, or drug addiction, or illicit sex, or all those combined.
A part of being human is feeling the pain of others and trying in some tangible way to relieve it if only for a moment.
The Talmud tells of a young rabbi in training who had decided to spend the day reciting the Psalms. Late into the afternoon a messenger came and told him the senior Rabbi wanted to see him, to come quickly. He told the messenger he would go as soon as he finished the Psalms. When he finally saw the Rabbi, he was asked why he delayed so long. The student said he had been devoted to reciting the Psalms. The Rabbi said he had called him to deliver money to a poor family. Then he said, “Psalms can be sung by angels, but only humans can help the poor.”
It is a good lesson.
We often put what we think are more lofty things ahead of the simple practical ones. And we are often guilty of leaving the care of the needy to God, or the church, or angels. I have to remind myself of this all the time and make amends.
It’s easy to think the poor, the alcoholic, the vagrant, those caught in drug addiction are not my concern, that they deserve whatever circumstances they are in, and that I have more important things to do than involve myself with them, either with my time or my money.
But that is to miss my contribution as a human being. We are here to help each other.
Henri Nouwen was a Dutch writer and theologian. In his book, “Here and Now,” he writes, “The poor have a mission to the rich, the people of color have a mission to the whites, the handicapped have a mission to the physically well, the gays have a mission to the straight, the dying have a mission to the living.”
What is that mission? To help us give them their dignity, and to help us keep our own. To help us see they are in our human family, where we belong with them.
“God bless you, sir,” Carl, with a rugged face and a sweet smile, said. I didn’t hear that as a tired cliché. I heard it as the call of the heart, the voice of our collective humanity, the appreciation of one whose name had been spoken, whose presence had been validated.