Donna appears at the front door every so often, not exactly a friend but more than an acquaintance. A teacher of sorts, I suppose. Like the time she asked me to loan her $20 for an emergency, and I came to learn that it really was not a loan at all, but more like a gift, minus the generosity.
Overweight, with weakened hips and knees, she sways back and forth as she makes her way down the street and struggles up the steps to pound on our door. Typically breathless and perspiring, she comes to make a pitch—for bus fare or a ride home, for money to pay for a prescription she waves in her hand or occasionally offering to sell small bags of coffee or some other commodity she has come upon. Donna is resourceful.
Known among the neighbors for her panhandling as well as her stories—her seven children who have not eaten for days, her grandmother who died out of state and without money for a funeral, the surgery she is about to have—Donna has worn out several welcomes, even at some church pantries. She is probably addicted to drugs, and no doubt a liar, but she is clearly in great need. After hearing the words of the Hebrew prophets and the story of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 over many years, I find it hard to turn her away with nothing. Not impossible, but hard.
Truth be told, I am afraid of Donna, not that she would do me any bodily harm. But her life is so precarious and my sympathy so very thin. She knocks on the door, and her need opens up like a gaping abyss from which I need to stand back and carefully dole out any little favor at arm’s length.
I had been thinking how grudgingly I give Donna anything at all from my storehouse of time and treasure when Pope Francis touched that same nerve, in his Pentecost address in Saint Peter’s Square. He told of hearing confessions in his old diocese and asking penitents if they ever gave alms. But more: Did they look in the eyes of the beggars and touch their hands? In this way, he explained, we are “touching the flesh of Christ, taking upon ourselves this suffering for the poor.” He went on to say that Christ became poor in the Incarnation in order “to walk along the road with us,” to share our life. “If we reach out to the flesh of Christ [in the poor], we begin to understand...what this poverty, the Lord’s poverty, actually is; and this is far from easy.”
So by the time Donna came around the other day looking for a ride home, I was geared up to treat her with dignity and look her in the eye. I spoke gently and I gave her my arm as we made our way down the stairs to the car. I helped her in, waiting patiently while she wrestled herself into the seatbelt.
No sooner had we pulled away from the curb than the ride home morphed, as often happens, into an additional request. Last time it was for money to buy herself a birthday cake—“Tomorrow’s my birthday, and I got nothing.” I had nothing either, except for the coins I squirrel away in the center console for parking meters and tolls, the cash leftovers of weeks of lunchtime purchases. It is ready money that gives me an inordinate sense of well-being, as though I will never be caught short. I prefer to break a bill rather than dip into those coins, even, it must be said, at a toll booth. But faced with Donna’s request for a possibly fictitious birthday cake, I parted with a couple of handfuls of quarters and dimes.
This time Donna asked if I would get her some chicken—“A family pack, all thighs,” she said, matter-of-factly. “How much is that going to cost,” I asked. Why? I guess I just wanted her to be aware that I had my limits. “Not much,” she said, and I laughed, increasing the space between us and making me a little ashamed. Did she need to suffer scorn just to get a few pieces of fried chicken?
As it turned out, the restaurant had no drive-thru, and rather than watch Donna heave herself out of the car and into the store, I volunteered to go in. But I carefully pulled the car around to the store window, hoping proximity would deter her from rifling through the glove box. As I said, Donna is resourceful.
I brought the chicken out, and we drove the few blocks to Donna’s apartment where I let her out. But before pulling away, I thought to check the coin stash, and sure enough, she had grabbed a few fistfuls of coins while I was inside the restaurant getting her dinner.
I caught up to her before she made it inside and asked her why she had taken the money—which now strikes me as a foolish question under the circumstances.
“What money?” she said. “I didn’t take no money out of your car. I swear before God, I didn’t take no money.”
Angry, saddened and frustrated by the whole interchange, I just turned, walked back to the car and drove off. Hadn’t I tried to do the decent thing? Hadn’t I gone the extra mile to buy her some food? Did she have to steal and then lie about it? What exactly is the lesson there?
This is far from easy, said the pope.
Next time I see her—and there will be a next time, for Donna cannot afford to let shame or fear keep her away—what will I do? I might point out to her that she is a thief and a liar and send her packing. We might have a quiet conversation about what happened when last we met. Or I might look her in the eye as I take her hand, smile and place a few coins in it.