By Christin Van Atta
I used to think homeless people asking for money on the streets were just scamming me. My mom, in a genuine attempt to protect me from the danger of talking to strangers, had told me a story about a homeless man with a broken leg whom she gave $100 to thinking that she was helping him.
The next day she saw the same man, cleaned up and walking around on a perfectly good set of legs, buying coffee with the $100 bill she gave him.
After I heard that story, I decided to do what most people do when they pass a panhandler: walk by quickly with my eyes on the ground, while saying a quick prayer for them to find a job. Don’t hate me if this sounds cruel and callous.
We’ve all been there at one point I think.
I even felt vindicated by these interesting parking-meter-like structures that I would see in some big cities that said something to the effect of: “Not all panhandlers are homeless; your money will better serve the homeless if you donate to The City Mission, here.” A big yellow arrow would point down to a coin slot in this strange machine as if to say, “don’t help them, help us instead!”
I thought to myself, well, at least I’m not the only one who thinks I might be getting ripped off.
I still felt the need to give some sort of charity though, if only out of obligation to God’s word. So I gave to more “official” causes like the Salvation Army workers who stood outside Giant Eagle and Walgreens in my town at Christmas, sometimes with “God loves a cheerful giver” ringing in my head to the time of their chiming bells.
But was my heart really cheerful while I was giving?
Or was I thinking about the present I could have bought for my dog with that $5 I just stuffed in the little red, circular bin with my freezing fingers?
Was my heart rejoicing at the idea of helping someone in need? Did I feel closer to God by reluctantly relinquishing $5 to someone I’d never see again? The hard answer in my head as I drove away was always emphatically, “no.” But I didn't really know what to do about it.
To echo the words of today’s first reading, I was constantly “sewing sparingly,” always weighing my options and my bank account before giving, never giving with joy, never giving because I truly believed someone needed my money more than me.
It was a long time before I realized that anyone, no matter if they were actually homeless or not, who was humble enough to ask for money, food, or anything else shamelessly on the street must be in need of my love and mercy, and perhaps my spare change too.
Then one day, outside of Town Hall on West 25th Street in Cleveland, my view on the homeless changed forever.
My sister and I walked out of Market Garden on our way to the next restaurant to have dinner. Sitting next to the doorway was an olive-skinned man with brown curly hair, wearing a Cleveland Browns shirt and dirty pants. His tennis shoes were ragged and he sat with his head cocked sideways, resting on his knees which were pulled up to his chest. He held up a red and white, paper Coca-Cola cup from some nearby restaurant half-heartedly, and didn’t make eye contact with anyone walking by.
It wasn’t his clothes, or his dirtiness or his ragged appearance that struck me as I walked by. It was his eyes. They were vacant, almost expressionless, infinitely sad. They did not meet mine as I walked by, but I felt my stomach drop as I stared at him.
This was not a man who was scamming anyone.
He wasn’t even making an effort to catch my attention. But the sadness in his eyes physically made me stumble and I kid you not, the Casting Crowns lyric, “Jesus break my heart for what breaks yours” popped into my head at the very moment I stared at his eyes and tried to keep walking.
My heart was truly broken for him, right then and there.
I stopped, turned around and dug quickly in my purse. I gave him all the money I had and came back later to give him a piece of pizza from our dinner at the restaurant. Extremely nervous, I said as gently as I could, “Hi. Do you want this?” He looked up for the first time, focused his eyes right on mine, and just said “Thank you.”
His words were not profound, but my act of giving was. It was as if I had conquered a mountain.
I felt like I had just met God. I felt like a cheerful giver. It took that man, that seemingly insignificant man, to help me die to a part of myself that had been holding me back from something Jesus always held so dear.
Jesus, continue to break my heart for what breaks yours.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
CHRISTIN VAN ATTA
Christin was born on the west side of Cleveland, graduated John Carroll University in 2014 with an English degree, and also has her Master's of English Literature from Kent State University. She is now a first year English teacher in Cleveland for 90 crazy 7th graders whom she loves dearly despite their craziness. Christin loves all pizza and her cat, Sienna, just as dearly, and hopes to visit Ireland someday because of the cool, rainy weather.