Thursday, February 03, 2011

A pack of smokes and a short chat

I like to think I’m sensitive to the needs of the homeless. I feed them when I can. I rarely give money, but I’ll always buy a meal; Even if it means I go without. I stopped at a 7/11 today for a packaged sandwich and bottle of water on my way to a meeting out in Simi Valley. I only had a few minutes of spare time, and the turkey on wheat is a pretty good quick meal. As I walked out after my purchase a homeless man asked me for spare change. I said no and offered him my sandwich instead. He hesitated for a moment before declining, and then added that what he wanted the money for was to buy a few cigarettes. Apparently, a store clerk he knows sells singles on the side. I asked what brand he smoked and then walked back into the store to buy him a pack. When I returned and handed him his cigarettes, he said, “Thanks, but what’s the deal?”

I told him I was just doing my good dead for the day. The look on his face told me he did not buy it. I insisted that I really had no agenda, and that I did not want anything from him.. What he said next offended me. ‘You religious types always want something.” I flipped out a little. I’m sure my, “dude – fuck off” came off a little harsh.

He stepped back. I stepped back. I said, “I’m an atheist.” His response was interesting. He said, “But you game me cigarettes.”

“I would have bought you beef jerky if that’s what you needed. I’m just trying to help. I have no agenda other than the fact that I help people.”

We talked for ten minutes. He smoked, I ate. He told me his story. I listened. When it was time for me to leave I asked if there was anything else I could do for him. He smiled and said no. He added that today had been a good day. I was happy. He was happy.

The funny thing is I learned to help people while I was a Christian. The man who taught me simple stated that it was our obligation as Christians to help people who needed aid. I’ve done it my whole life but I don’t think of it as a Christian act. The man who taught me explained that helping people was an act of love. Asking for nothing in return was an act of service. And most importantly, to use the opportunity as a means to minister was un-Christ like. Every other Christian pastor I came in contact with while a Christian stressed offering help as a means to minister. My helpful pastor (who no longer plays that game) stressed help as an act of love and compassion. That stuck with me.

I can buy a homeless man meal or a pack of cigarettes. I can ask for nothing in return. I can spend ten minutes (or an hour) simply listening. I do it because I can. I do it because I should. I do it because a nice man taught me about authentic love. I do it because it makes me feel good. What other reasons do I need?