We are in the season of Lent. I often forego the traditional practice of sacrificing, or giving up, something for Lent, but instead try to do something proactive to help other people during that time. In our parish, we also promote performing Random Acts of Kindness whenever possible. While these practices can be fulfilling, still it is sometimes quite easy to get caught up in ourselves and forget to take the extra effort. For that reason, I decided to return to the traditional Lenten sacrifice this year, while continuing to look for situations where I can be more selfless.
I’ve also committed to attend weekly Wednesday evening sessions at my church during Lent this year. At 5:30 each Wednesday, our parish presents a prayerful Stations of the Cross in the church, followed by a light meal of soup and bread in the Gathering Space and a lecture session by one of our parish priests. I’ve attended these Wednesday Lenten sessions for many years with my wife and daughter, although we missed several last year during the weeks that followed my father’s death and funeral.
As a side note, but important to the story, I have two nephews and a niece through my sister and her husband. They are currently in their teenage and preteen years. They live three hours away, so we do not often see each other outside of holidays or other special events, but I do send birthday cards every year to each of them on their special days. I’ve always included money with their birthday cards, but about ten years ago, I decided it would be a good/fun idea each year to include an amount of cash equal to the age they turned on that birthday. So that has become a tradition for my wife and I. Over the years, all three kids have become very excited with the expectation each year — even though it HAS led to some counting of chickens before the eggs have hatched. Last year at a family gathering for dinner, my niece commented on something she wanted to buy for herself and that the money she had already saved, plus the birthday money she would be getting from us, would cover it with X dollars left over. (This was about 3 months BEFORE her next birthday, but she was already factoring in that birthday cash amount!)
So on Wednesday of this week, I was at work and got a text message from my mother. She had been having some major computer issues recently (with a computer which was just brand new in late January). I was on the phone with her for a while on Tuesday evening, but we were unable to resolve the problems. However, her Wednesday morning text informed me that after saying a prayer that morning, her computer did an automatic update and everything seemed to be working fine again. So I called her from work when I had a free moment Wednesday afternoon just to make sure everything was still working well. After we got through that discussion, she began to talk to me about her daily happenings which is not unusual. She had gone to morning Mass and stopped at the dollar store to pick up a birthday card for my nephew.
My mind immediately began racing… What day is this? Are we into March already? How did I forget? Finally I asked my mom in a panic, what day is his birthday? I had been so wrapped up in other things that I just plain forgot! She told me that Ryan’s birthday was on Friday and that I had better have 13 dollars for him!
Relieved that I hadn’t missed it, and thankful for the coincidence in calling mom that afternoon and her decision to mention something as mundane as buying a birthday card for Ryan, I developed a plan in my head. I had to be at church by 5:30 that evening for Stations of the Cross, so working backward from that deadline, and realizing that I already needed to get something mailed out for work which required an inside counter visit at the post office, I arranged to leave work at 4:20 to go and buy a birthday card to get into Wednesday’s outgoing mail which should result in delivery on his birthday Friday.
As I left work closer to 4:30, I realized that I would be cutting it close because I did not have enough cash on hand to put into the birthday card. I rarely carry ANY cash with me because I seldom NEED it and without any I am less likely to spend it on things that I don’t need. As it happens, I DID have four dollars in my money clip, but not enough to buy a card AND add $13 to the envelope. Because this meant I would have to make multiple stops before the card would be ready for mailing, I decided to hit the post office first to make sure I got my work related mail out before 5:00. Although the inside service counter closes at 5:00, the last pickup from the mail boxes is not until 5:15, so I could always swing back with the finished birthday card afterward and still get it out that day.
I did my first post office drop, then drove to a dollar store around the corner and found something appropriate in their card section. Having that small amount of cash on hand, I just paid for the card with a few dollars from that cash. In hindsight, I suppose I could have used a debit card and asked for cash back, but it didn’t occur to me at the time. I also didn’t contemplate at the time that would have made things much simpler and moved me along my other subsequent stops more quickly — which would have never led to the events which inspired this blog post…
My bank has a ATM/branch nearby, so I waited in that line (and there WAS a line ahead of me) to get a $20 bill. A few hundred yards further is a Kroger store, so I decided to pop in and buy a package of snack crackers to break my $20. As an added benefit I would then have a snack to take in to work the next day. (I gave up sugary snacks and desserts for Lent, but not the salty snacks!) So by the time I got out of Kroger, in addition to the birthday card, I had a small carton of goldfish crackers and increments of cash which could be combined to make up the $13. I was less than half mile from the post office and it was not quite 5:00, so I decided to just sit in the parking lot and sign/address the card. Thankfully I already had a pen in my car’s ashtray. It was unseasonably warm for early March in northern Ohio, so I rolled my front windows down about ¼ of the way, turned on some talk radio, and got to it. I just got the envelope sealed and addressed and was about to write my return address on it when I was startled by a woman’s voice calling out to me “Sir?” from the parking lot.
A 30 something young black woman apologized for startling me and then proceeded to tell me that she had been panhandling at the Kroger store and asked me if I had any money I could spare for food. This is the same Kroger store where I had an earlier encounter years ago, described here: the same store location which will be closing in a few short weeks when a newly built and larger Kroger store opens up down the street.
This woman was eating a bag of corn chips and apologized when a small bit of chewed up chip spewed from her lips onto the outside of my car window. She then told me that she had been at the homeless shelter and got into a fight with a white woman there who called her and her children the N word (although she used the actual word in relating the story to me). She said she was not going to lie to me and that she had been taken to jail for it and spent three days there. She also told me that the authorities at the shelter informed her that she was not welcome to come back.
I had already put the $13 birthday money in the card and sealed that envelope, but I reached down to my feet and grabbed the extra six dollars from my Kroger purchase and gave it to the woman through my window. I told her that was all that I had at the time, but that she was welcome to it. She was very gracious and asked me if I knew of any other place in town where she could get assistance. I asked her if she had tried visiting any of the local churches. She indicated that she had, but they had all told her that they couldn’t help because of being low on funds, but that she didn’t really know what that meant.
The woman then asked me if I would be able to give her a ride. I was instinctively very cautious at being asked that question, but something made me pause. I considered telling her, “Sorry, I have a few errands to run and someplace to be” — both of which were true, and not simply excuses to refuse her request. But instead, for whatever reason, I asked her where it was she needed to go. She responded with the name of a neighborhood that I recognized. It is not in a good part of town and generally has a negative reputation in town. I’m not overly familiar with it myself, but I knew exactly where it was which was only about a mile or so away from where we were at the time. I glanced at the clock, quickly weighed the situation and my prospects of getting my nephew’s birthday card mailed out in time, and I told the woman, “Sure. I can give you a ride.” She smiled and thanked me and said there was a woman there she had stayed with before and thought that she might be able to get some help from her.
As I cleared off my passenger seat, the woman got in with her corn chips and a small knapsack. As we pulled out of the parking lot, she told me that she was a Christian and showed me a small book or prayers someone had given to her. She said she hadn’t always been a Christian and that she used to worship Satan because nobody had ever told her before when she was growing up that that was wrong. Next she pulled out a plastic drink mixing cup that she said a “nice white… caucasian woman” had given to her with some tea. She said she did not realize it was a cup for mixing alcoholic drinks and that she wondered why she got so many strange looks from other people as she drink tea from that cup, until somebody finally informed her that it wasn’t a tea cup, but a mixed drink mixer.
She then thanked me again for helping her and told me that a lot of people wouldn’t have agreed to give her a ride because “you’re not supposed to do that sort of thing — it’s not always safe” that you never know if you can trust somebody. She also admitted that she could just as easily be in danger by asking for/accepting a ride from a stranger. She said she didn’t know for sure that I wasn’t a crazy person, but that she felt like she could trust me after I was so kind to her in the Kroger parking lot. I laughed a bit and told her that I wasn’t a crazy person, even as I wondered internally why she felt it necessary to raise those issues in the first place and whether I made a mistake in agreeing to give her a ride.
She showed me a cell phone with a shattered screen but still worked that someone had given to her. And she let me know that it had some prepaid minutes on it. She also sort of whispered out loud — didn’t really say to me directly — as we drove past a Burger King, McDonalds, and Taco Bell that said she should probably make sure that she had something for her children to eat and she hoped that nobody was going to turn her in to children’s services. I wondered for a split second whether I should offer to buy her a few hamburgers or to let HER buy them with her six dollars, and perhaps I should have, but I was in the wrong lane of traffic to pull in to those restaurants, so I continued to drive to her requested destination.
Just a few seconds later we approached the neighborhood where she was going and she directed me through a few streets to get to her destination. As I pulled to the curb, she thanked me again and shook my hand. She said, “God bless you” and I told her that he always does and replied in kind. As I drove away, I still had a few minutes to get my nephew’s birthday card into the mail boxes at the post office. I then stopped back at home to change into some more comfortable pants and shoes and got to the church right at 5:30.
I have no way to know for sure the true reality of this woman’s story. Was she going to use the few dollars I gave to her to buy food for her children or would it go toward something else? Were there other issues with her children which would cause her to casually comment to a stranger about protective services? Was it really just tea that she was drinking earlier in her cup? Was there more to the story about her altercation at the homeless shelter or the shattered cell phone? Was she really a former worshipper of Satan? Was I just a “mark”?
As we prayed through the Stations of the Cross, using the same booklet that we have used for years at our parish, a few of the reflection prayers that we all recite as a group spoke a little bit louder to me this time. I have reprinted a few of those below.
Fifth Station – Simon helps Jesus
Jesus, our brother,
We have to admire Simon.
He took up your cross and followed you.
He had so little doubt, so little hesitation.
We see you suffering in all around us,
in the poor, in the powerless,
in the misunderstood.
We are so hesitant to come to your aid.
We find so many excuses.
We remain aloof.
Grant us the wisdom and the courage
to help the least of your brothers and sisters
and so help you.
Sixth Station – Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
Jesus, our brother,
You rewarded Veronica for her courage.
You left your face upon her veil.
You will reward us for our courage,
you will leave the imprint of your face
upon our lives.
“By this will all know
that you are my disciples:
that you love one another.”
Help us to forget our fears and reach out
to serve our needy brothers and sisters.
Eighth Station – Jesus speaks to the women of Jerusalem
Jesus, our brother,
In the midst of your sufferings
you had compassion
for others and their pain.
We are often so self-centered.
We do not see the suffering of others.
We want pity, kindness, and understanding.
We are willing to give so little in return.
Help us forget ourselves.
Awaken us to the pain
in the lives of others.
Tenth Station – Jesus is stripped of his garments
Jesus, our brother,
There is something fearful
in thinking of you stripped before the crowd.
Even the privacy of clothing is taken.
You have given up everything for us.
We give so little in return.
May we have the grace to give,
to give of what we have,
to help our brothers and sisters
suffering all around us.
Eleventh Station – Jesus is nailed to the Cross
Jesus, our brother,
the pain of those nails was unjust.
Your hands which did such good,
your feet which walked on errands of mercy,
are now punished.
You received little gratitude
for the good you did.
Why should we expect more for the good we do?
Help us give and ask nothing in return.
Twelfth Station – Jesus dies on the Cross
Jesus, our brother,
You have the greatest love for us.
What can we say in the face of it?
We can only try to imitate you,
by responding to
the brothers and sisters
you have given us to love.
After completing Stations of the Cross, we moved into the other room for soup. Each week, they have a goodwill offering basket for participants to leave donations to defray the costs of the soup, salad, and bread provided. As I mentioned above, I rarely ever carry cash with me. On the other hand, my wife often does, so in years past, I’ve always just relied on her to drop a few dollars in the basket at Soup & Prayer on Wednesdays during Lent. But this year I’ve been going solo because Wednesday has become one of our daughter’s dance class evenings and my wife stays at the studio to volunteer in the studio office on our daughter’s dance nights. Each of the previous Wednesdays this year, I’ve forgotten to bring any money with me to donate to the cause.
On this particular Wednesday I would have had change from my store purchase, but I gave it to the woman in the Kroger parking lot instead. As I was sitting at the table waiting for our turn to go up to the soup and bread table, I was a little bit discouraged that I failed to keep a dollar from my change to add to the pot, but quickly decided that my interaction with the woman and offering her a few dollars was more important than adding a few more dollars to the already full goodwill offering basket at the church. It was then that I remembered the change I gave to the woman at Kroger was just sitting on the floor of my car after I pulled out the birthday card bills from my store change. I had forgotten that there were still two dollars left from my original money clip/pocket change that I used to buy the card. That money clip was in my jacket pocket and still had $2.00 in it, so I WAS able to make an additional offering this week.
If I had not called my mother, chances are I would have missed getting Ryan’s birthday card mailed out in time. If I’d had enough cash to put $13.00 into his birthday card of if I’d just gotten cash back at the dollar store where I bought the card, I would have never driven to the Kroger store where I lingered for a bit in the parking lot. If the weather had been colder like it traditionally should’ve been in early March, I would have been bundled up with the windows rolled up as I sat in the parking lot. If I had let fear or prejudice impact my response to a woman asking for help, those words of prayer during Stations of the Cross would have likely haunted me.
Sometimes, it only takes a simple gesture of kindness and compassion to make a difference. As I said above, I don’t know if my few dollars to the woman were used for selfless or selfish purposes on her part. But she was a reminder to me that I can always do better when it comes to being charitable. It just sometimes takes a gentle reminder — a reminder from Jesus on the Cross.
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