As a committed soda addict, whenever I’m living in the US I am always on familiar terms with the employees of my local 7-11 (we don’t have Maverik out East and the nearest Wawa is inconveniently distant, to my endless dismay). I’m there most nights except Sunday (a day for which I always have a couple of 12-packs of reserves squirreled away, of course) fueling my boom-and-bust cycle of caffeine addiction and sleep deprivation, always sure to avoid any caffeine above room temperature in order to keep the peace between God and me.
When I moved back to DC a few months ago, I briefly panicked because the 7-11 across from my metro station had that awful, soul-eroding problem where my drink of choice, Diet Dr. Pepper, always tasted like the syrup was mixed with some fruit-flavored abomination, but I eventually tracked down a better, closer dealer by my apartment so that the fizzy spice (that’s a Dune reference) could continue to flow.
It was on a late summer evening characterized by DC’s typical humid misery that my screaming children managed to exhaust me into taking them to my Mormon opium den for Slurpees that I first met William. Seeing him standing there by the double-doors, I got that sensation that rises up unprovoked when you know someone’s going to ask for money you don’t have (as in, I don’t physically carry money on me pretty much ever) and you hope the person’s nice when you apologetically explain that you can’t help. William did ask for change for food, and when I told him I had none, he asked if I wouldn’t mind getting him something to eat. I told him I didn’t and asked what he’d like. “A Spicy Bite and a Gatorade, please.” Sure, no problem.
I have two hard and fast rules for panhandlers, particularly since I never carry cash: 1) I will never refuse any request to purchase food, and 2) the requester is allowed to ask for whatever they want. I don’t care if a person is asking everyone who passes by for food and then collecting what they get; I figure that if an individual is in a situation where they feel compelled to “grift” for food then, well, they probably need all the food they can get their hands on. On the second point, I’m not by any means rich, particularly not by extravagant DC standards, but I have found that people begging for food have never tried to take advantage of me (I once told a gentleman he could order anything he wanted for breakfast and he asked for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a grape Gatorade). Further, I feel like being forced to ask strangers to provide even your basic sustenance must strip a person of some part of their self-worth and I hope that by showing that you’re giving willingly and without any kind of reluctance or resentment allows them to have some of that self-worth back. You’re not begging, we’re offering. We’re in this together.
I bought William his hot dog, some Gatorade, some assorted snacks, and some fruit (I worry about how much healthy food he gets) and brought it to him while my kids awkwardly stared at the concrete the way kids do when their dads do things they don’t really understand and strangers are involved. I asked William his name and told him mine, I made sure he had a place to sleep and a way to get there, and then I shook his hand and I wished him well and headed the two minutes back down the road to my apartment feeling incredibly overcome by what I had felt in the sticky hot air at the 7-11 curb. I can’t explain and won’t try to explain the exact sensation of “overcome-ness” but I think that anyone who has felt overcome in the way I did that night will probably understand and I will leave it at that. I was not overcome by my own goodness (as obnoxiously self-congratulatory as this whole essay comes off, I can assure you that to use it as some kind of emblem of my overall character would be utterly gratuitous), nor by the sense of self-satisfaction that we often instill in ourselves for the good deeds we do. If I’m being honest, the majority of my paltry good deeds are motivated as much by a desire to avoid seeing myself as a hypocrite than by pure altruism. But this simple, minor act of charity that I had been compelled toward by my own self-loathing triggered a third-party outpouring I hadn’t anticipated and genuinely didn’t deserve to receive.
And so what? All this to let you know that God spoke to me because I bought a transient person $15 worth of 7-11 brand junk food and aren’t I just amazing? I promise it’s not, my other general rule being that I try to take seriously Jesus’ call to do good in secret to the point where I don’t even tell my wife about these kinds of things (oh no, this just comes often as even more self-congratulations, sigh).
I guess it’s really because I felt like God taught me something through William and it’s something I feel compelled to share in the hope that maybe it will spread the meaning of the personal lesson beyond my own miserly little circle of spirituality and small-time charity. I had, at first, had that initially-inspiring-but-on-second-thought-horrifying notion that God had put William there (and continues to put him there, since I see him regularly) to teach me the importance of charity, but I long ago rejected the idea that God orchestrated things in that way. God didn’t put William on that curb; we did. We collectively and individually as a society and as a human race created a limitless number of people like William. These people are there not so we can make ourselves feel better by offering our charity but as examples of our failure to live in a way that genuinely acknowledges the preciousness of individual children of God both spiritually and materially. God doesn’t have to put Williams in our paths; we put them there ourselves and they are everywhere all around us.
But the lesson God taught me wasn’t socio-economic or political, it wasn’t structural or meta, it wasn’t about all the billions of people I hadn’t helped that day. The lesson was about me and William. Just the two of us. And I know that’s what the lesson was because I wasn’t overwhelmed by the fairly rote and mundane act of purchasing food, I was overwhelmed because I had done something differently from what I usually do; I had shaken William’s hand, I had asked his name and told him mine, and I had made sure that he was going to be okay. I had never done that before and why hadn’t I ever thought to do that before, why had I thought that a five-dollar non-nutritional sandwich and a 50 cent apple were all that was required of me to fulfill my responsibility to a man like William, of whom I have met so, so many around DC and the world. I had been overwhelmed by the fact that when I had touched William’s hand and heard his name, I knew that he was a child of God and that I was as responsible for his well-being as anyone else. I was floored by that knowledge and by the love I felt for him in that moment.
I see William most weeks but I think particularly about that first time we met. I think about my off-hand decision to offer him my hand, squeamish as I am about contact with strangers, and how it affected me. I think about how when the Savior healed, he didn’t simply point his finger and zap people’s blindness or leprosy away, though I’m sure he could have done so. Instead, even when faced with thousands of Nephite refugees, he made each miracle an individual miracle, an interpersonal experience for him and the recipient that showed mankind that Christ’s love and therefore God’s love are not theoretical, not philosophical or mathematical, but human and emotional, the kind of love that moves deity to tears. And ours has to be that, too. Me buying a homeless person lunch and then telling myself I’ve done my part is, eh, fine, but it’s not Godly. It’s not enough. I have to really, really care because Christ cares, because Christ loves that person as much as he loves me and he is constrained by cosmic rules from taking care of them so it falls to you and me to act in his place.
Knowing that creates a moral dilemma for people like me whose lives are characterized by material comfort and familial responsibilities. I can’t give everything I have to the poor because I have children to feed and take care of. I can’t take homeless people into my apartment because I have little kids sleeping in those rooms and I could never risk bringing a stranger into my home that way. Christ asks us to live an incredibly difficult moral law in the Sermon on the Mount and we have to stretch that thin and easily broken membrane of morality over the rigid and angular framework of our own lives as best we can. To really sit down and read the scriptures that should dictate our actions and be faced with the task of putting them into practice can be absolutely paralyzing. But what more can we do but try? Because that’s what Christ has asked and how can we say no to the person has already done it for all of us?
I am not going to reconcile those difficulties here. I can’t. I don’t really know if anyone can. I think maybe it comes down to each of us working out our own salvation, a task that can’t be accomplished without wrestling with these moral quandaries in our own hearts and minds and then committing to doing our best and then investing our hope in Christ to carry us the rest of the way.
I have been very reluctant to write this essay because there’s nothing I fear more than being called self-righteous or a hypocrite and because I know that by putting pearls on the Internet you’re automatically placing them before any number of swine. I recognize that by so-doing I may have surrendered any “rewards” I have received or am yet to receive from my interactions past, present, and future with William. I can only hope that you take this in the spirit in which it is written and that you extend a certain amount of charity to me in not assuming that I am trying beatify myself here. It seems churlish to be grateful for my ongoing experience with William, to exploit his continued poverty for my own spiritual self-aggrandizement. So, instead I’ll say I am thankful for a knowledge of the Gospel of Christ because the Williams of the world are going to exist and suffer regardless of that knowledge but it is through that understanding that we can discern both our own spiritual and material responsibilities toward these children of God. What’s more, it allows us to know that while we may strive and fail to catch these people who fall in mind-numbing numbers through the cracks of our broken societies, there is the net of the Atonement that is stretched out underneath us all, a net woven by Christ’s own hands and that will see us all land safely, in the end.
And so I’ll say what I said tonight and what I hope to Scrooge-ly keep in my heart every day of the year:
Merry Christmas, William. Do you have someplace to sleep tonight? Do you have a way to get home?