I commute to work on the Max, Portland’s light rail system. One day not long ago, I was sitting near the front of a car, my nose in a book, and a commotion caused me to look up. A man was on the floor, his hand reaching up and gripping the safety bar. It was clear he couldn’t pull himself up. One, then two people, then a third, helped him to a seat about six feet away from me. They even had to bend his knees so he could sit down. He was completely helpless. Then the three dissolved into the train crowd, and we took off.
The destitute man had a face that had been handsome once, before destructive forces ravaged him. I wondered how he could survive like this. Was he high? He must have been—otherwise he would have been wheelchair-bound in that condition.
His head was down. After 5 minutes, he started to move. At a glacial pace he extracted pens and then Max tickets from his pockets and dropped them one by one to the floor. People (not me) stooped to pick them up and put them into his grimy bag. By the time we neared my stop, he started trying to speak. Did he need help? He may have gotten a few garbled words out, but by that time, the door opened, I stepped out, and the train went on its way.
I still feel guilty about not being one of the people to jump up and help him to a seat. And for the 20 minutes I rode facing him, all I did was hope he would stay calm and quiet until I got out.
As encounters with destitute people go, this was longer than usual for me. More typical is to get asked for money, especially if I’m waiting or sitting somewhere downtown. I get uncomfortable when this happens. I freeze while my brain runs through the usual questions: “Is this one of those ‘professional’ beggars I’ve heard of?” “What are they going to do with this money?” “Will they see that I have plenty of cash if I open my wallet?” I over-think it and often just say no. That makes me feel worse.
I grew up in evangelical churches, which meant Sunday School every week when I was a kid. One of the stories we heard over and over was The Good Samaritan. A man going from Jerusalem to Jericho is beaten, robbed, and left half-dead by a gang of thieves. Soon a priest comes walking along the road. Rather than help the man, the priest crosses to the other side and walks on. A Levite follows soon after and does the same thing. A Samaritan man, however—his people traditional enemies of Jews at the time—stops, dresses the injured man’s wounds, takes him to an inn, and tends to him for a few days. He gives the innkeeper money to continue the man’s care. Jesus asked his disciples after finishing the story, “Now which of these three do you think was a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?"
When I was young, this parable seemed like a no-brainer. Help people who needed help. Why did you even need a parable for this? But now I get it. Helping a stranger is a big deal, even if the person is a “neighbor,” let alone an enemy. I am more often the priest or the Levite, not the Samaritan, when I come face-to-face with a person needing help.
But even if I opened my purse each time and slapped a $5 or $10 bill into the requester’s hand, it feels so futile. I’m much more in sync with Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision that “the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway.” It's the right vision by a mile. But it also lets me off the hook. Yup, those people in power need to fix the system so that every child is born into a decent life with a fair shot at safety, success, and happiness.
There has to be something in the middle. I think the closest I’ve come to giving well was as a member of Mt. Zion Methodist Church in central New Jersey. We had only a couple dozen members, but we were mighty. Every month or so, not on any kind of schedule, the pastor or a member would hear about a family, person, or organization in need, and we’d immediately circle up and decide what to do about it. Sometimes we wrote a check out of the church treasury, but more often we responded with exactly what they needed most—used furniture, winter coats, grocery store gift cards, back-to-school clothes, Christmas gifts, transportation, or food. Sometimes we met the people we helped, sometimes not. There was no application form, no documentation. We just responded.
I feel like I was “good” as a member of Mt. Zion. Am I “bad” now? I’m still me. I realize now what a privilege it was to give like that, as a member of a team with access to requests we could fill.
I wonder if the priest and Levite were sometimes “good” too. And if they’d been walking together on the road to Jericho with a few friends, would they have stopped to help the injured man? I’d like to think so. Granted, the Samaritan stepped up on his own and proved to be the best neighbor, no doubt about that. But some of us are more risk-averse and slower to do the right thing. We do best when we have time and teamwork.
I’ve lately found more ways to help out. At the holidays we gave backpacks stuffed with new socks, shirts, and underwear to an organization that works with the homeless. I’ve found a Facebook page for a rescue mission near where I work and another for a family shelter near our neighborhood. They send out alerts for items they need—I buy those and deliver them. It’s not enough, but better than before.
I intend to jump up and get involved the next time there’s someone on the Max or the street who needs help.
I didn’t think I’d have to re-learn the Good Samaritan parable once again, but I did, and I have. You don’t get to choose your neighbors or their needs or when you’ll encounter them. You only get to choose how you respond.