*He was 5 years old when his mother’s boyfriend sodomized him. When he was 7, the people that lived in his house threw a party where everyone got stoned – so stoned, in fact, that they passed the boy around as their sex toy. A year later, he started smoking weed, too, just to escape the pain. When he was 10, he raped an 8 year-old girl because he thought that was normal behavior. When he was 11, his mom’s latest fling prostituted him for drug money. At 12, the boy sold his first Ziploc baggie of marijuana. The money kept him from being pimped-out that weekend. It also offered him a way to escape the pain of his beatings from the boyfriend – by remaining high himself. It wasn’t long and cocaine became the drug of choice. Because he knew of no other way to get through a day, he was soon addicted. He ran away from home at 14. He was incarcerated at 15. His repeated drug offenses combined with his tendency to steal money for drugs were more than any of his extended family or friends could take. He had burned every familial bridge and lost every friend he’d ever made by the time he was 16.
By the age of 18, he was a homeless, drug-addicted, high-school dropout with a record of two felonies and five misdemeanors. He couldn’t find a job to save his life.
At 19, after a failed suicide attempt, he was admitted to the psych-hospital where I work. It was his third attempt in three weeks. He was diagnosed with “Severe Depressive Disorder, Drug Abuse Associated.” He was done. He wanted out of this hell-hole that many of the rest of us like to call “the good life.”*
After he was discharged from the psych-hospital, I saw him begging on the corner of US-131 and Wealthy Street on a frigid, snowy Saturday. I was pretty sure if I gave him money, he’d use it for drugs. Drug-abuse is the only effective coping skill he’s ever known. It’s what keeps him from attempting suicide EVERY day. I knew that seeing him alive meant he was numbing his pain with drugs – otherwise he’d surely be dead.
I gave him money.
But it didn’t make me feel good about myself. I felt a pit in my stomach. It’s such a cheap way out of helping the poor, the needy, or hurting. It’s so freakin’ easy to roll down the window and throw someone some cash, isn’t it? Or maybe we’ll opt to take the even easier path and keep the window rolled up tightly, lock the doors, and tell the kids in the backseat, “You see those beggars? They’re scammers. They just use that money for drugs and alcohol. You shouldn’t give money to beggars because they never use it for food or rent. I even read somewhere that sometimes beggars make more per year than daddy does!”
We are a busy people – we American Christians – with a million things to do just today. So instead of parking the car, walking over to him, shaking his dirty hand, and offering the beginning of a nurturing relationship by taking him out for lunch – we either snub him or flip him a few quarters.
Getting out of the car and hearing his story will take time. It will take energy. It will take enormous emotional capital. And it will probably take a hellava lot of money (more than a few quarters) to help this guy. Investing in him may take years. Maybe the rest of your life. You will get dirty, tired and frustrated. It’s not going to be easy. But it’s probably the ONLY way you’ll make a difference in this boy’s life and – I’m just guessing here – it’s probably what Jesus would do.
One life at a time. That’s how we can make a difference. Just one at a time. We get out of the car and make a difference.
There is simply NO POSSIBLE WAY that we can know a beggars situation simply by observing them on the street corner. There is NO WAY we can know what hell their life has been to bring them to this place. Why is it so easy to assume they are taking advantage of us (we who are sitting in our warm cars) instead of assuming life has beat them into this state of desperation? And when we drive by and refuse them any help at all because of the possibility they are taking advantage of us, we are passing sweeping judgments on all beggars.
But today, as I see my friend begging on the overpass, I’m in too much of a hurry. I don’t have time to park my car and chat with him. I wish I did. Because THAT is the only way to truly know and understand his circumstances. It’s the only way to have any hope of offering real, practical, and sustainable help.
So on this day, if I refuse to park my car and go talk to the young man, I must choose between the two lesser options: do nothing and drive on by risking that without drugs or alcohol to numb his pain he’ll try to take his life again, or give him money that I know he will use to buy drugs.
I’m going to choose to support his drug habit today. And I pray that I will continue simplifying my life to free up time, money and energy so I can actually INVEST in hurting people. I want to be the kind of person that doesn’t put a band-aid on problems (giving money), but chooses to dig deep, work hard, and sacrifice much in order to find lasting solutions.
I want to be the one who parks the car and strolls on over for a conversation.
*This is a fictitious person – made from a composite of people’s stories I’ve heard over the years. Any resemblance to an actual person is entirely coincidental. But people just like this boy really do exist in my city, in your city, in every city. And they frequently show up at my psych hospital as suicidal. Sadly, I’ve even heard more horrendous stories than this one. Last Saturday, however, I really did give money to a beggar I personally knew at the highway overpass in Grand Rapids.