A couple of Sundays ago, I went out to my car to put something in the golf bag. Sylvia was on her knees tending to her flowers at the antique store across the street. There was a young woman standing over her. She was gesticulating in a dramatic fashion as she talked. Sylvia seemed to be ignoring her.
The young woman approached me as I stood in the yard.
"Hey Mister," she said. "Can I talk to you?"
Great. A panhandler. We don't get many of those in this neighborhood. We get the door-to-door sales crooks and jackleg yard guys all the time. Panhandlers not so much.
She was in her early twenties. Her hair dyed jet black, was parted in the middle, which required her to repeatedly push it out of her face.
As I have written in the past, I don't give money to panhandlers. It's not that I am heartless. Indeed, I think I enjoy something of a reputation for charity and good works in this town. Which doesn't make me the second coming of Gandhi. I get that. But I don't get guilted into much either.
And while I typically take an exceedingly aggressive approach toward solicitors that arrive unbidden on my porch, I didn't throw this girl off of my yard as a matter of course. Maybe because she was a young woman. I don't know.
"OK," she said brushing her hair out of her eyes. "I'm really embarrassed to have to do this."
"Do what?" I asked.
"To ask for help. But I'm kinda desperate. I hitched a ride with a guy in Springfield who was coming to Little Rock. Anyway, he had a heart attack and is one of the hospitals here. I don't know which hospital. I don't even know his name. All I know is all my stuff is in the trunk of his car. And I need some money to get something to eat and to get back to Springfield."
"I'm sorry," I said. "I don't have any money on me."
That's what I always say.
"Well, maybe you could take me to an ATM and you could use your card."
"You must be kidding."
She didn't look particularly dangerous. But for all I know she was packing. No way I was going to get in a vehicle with her.
"No. I'm not. I really need some help."
There was a part of me, the part of me raised by Donice Bowen and the United Methodist Church, that wanted to believe this. Then I remembered the last woman who showed up at my house looking for help. She turned out to be a total con artist who had taken the time to do research on me. She was a pro. You have to protect yourself.
This girl looked more crazy than criminal. But still. Her story didn't make a whole lot of sense. That's when I went full blown lawyer on her.
"You mean to tell me you rode all the way from Springfield, Missouri to Little Rock with some guy and you didn't catch his name?"
"Tell me how you know he's had a heart attack."
Silence. She was getting pissed.
"I think you need to leave. Now." I said.
She headed back across the street from whence she came.
"I hope I don't die!" she yelled back at me from over her shoulder.
OK. That hurt a little bit.
I have written in the past that while I'm not a very good Christian. I'm a pretty good Methodist. And us Methodists are hard-wired to "do all the good we can." And while I've done well for myself, I'm hardly wealthy. Still, it would not have made a dent in my standard of living in the slightest to have slipped her 5 bucks. And maybe I should have done that.
But ask anybody in law enforcement or social work about panhandlers. They will tell you that 90% of them will take any money you give them and will either smoke it up or drink it up. It is a better and more efficient use of the money to give it to homeless shelters or food ministries. Which I do.
Or to give it to friends that are soliciting for charitable purposes. A buddy brought his 10 year old daughter over the other night. She was selling some homemade granola trial mix junk she called "reindeer food." The 2 buck donation goes to "Toys for Tots." I gave her a 20. I know where that money is heading.
I saw the Girl from Springfield last week. I saw her over by the grocery store down the street. She was wearing a poncho and a backpack. Maybe she got her stuff back. And maybe this was a line of bull straight from jump street.
But she didn't die after leaving my house.
And I am grateful for that.
I am also thankful for people whose vocation is to help the less fortunate. The ones who run the shelters and the feeding stations. They deserve all of our gratitude and support.
As I have written once before, about turning away a guy who showed up at my house at 2 AM allegedly seeking warmth, Jesus walked the streets. But he didn't walk these streets. Theodicy is theology's attempt to explain the inexplicable. Check it out on your own time.
Back to the real world.
I don't particularly regret not giving money to a panhandler with a sketchy story.
But I guarantee you I will write a check to the homeless shelter this week. I'm not a very good Christian but I'm a pretty good Methodist. And I try to do all the good I can.