The woman was standing under the overhang of a medical supply store. It was dark, raining hard, after 8 p.m. I had just gotten off from work, and was walking to my car. The wind blew gustily. I saw her up ahead, looking huge under her many layers of clothing. The street was dark and deserted, and I briefly considered turning the corner to take another route. Instead I walked past her, and said hello. She responded instantly, with a smile, and, perhaps wanting to offer something to me in return for my greeting, said: “McDonald’s is giving away free coffee tonight. It’s kind of a long walk, though, in the rain.” She proceeded to tell me how to get there. We chatted a minute, then I went on. I wondered what I could do for her.
As I walked, perhaps 4 blocks further, I passed the only nearby business open on this blustery autumn night: a fine local restaurant. Wonderful aromas wafted through the air, and through the plate-glass window I could see it was crowded with diners enjoying a good meal. The contrast of the contented diners in the warm inviting room, with the woman standing in the dark lonely night 4 blocks away filled me with sorrow. I felt the tears come as I reached my car. I decided to go to a Deli that would still be open, and buy the woman some coffee, hot soup, and bread to warm her. First I would drive by and make sure she was still there in the meager shelter of the store awning. But she was already gone, vanished into the darkness.
As we returned from our recent California vacation, we could tell we had returned to Oregon by the fact that there were beggars on many street corners. We hadn’t seen too much of that in the Golden State. In Oregon, panhandlers are everywhere. This might not seem, at first glance, to say much for Oregon, but perhaps it is actually a good thing. Poverty is everywhere, even in a rich nation such as ours. People without hope, hungry, begging for spare change. (Not much different from our stereotypes of third world countries, is it?) Some places drive the beggars away, sweep the problem under the rug, into ghettos and back alleys. But the poor are still there. Other places try their best to provide relief and services, and the poor live more visibly among the affluent.
Beggars are a living reproach to the injustices that are institutionalized in our world. There they stand before us: the mentally ill, the lost, the unlucky, the wounded and traumatized veteran–along with the opportunists. Their visible presence prevents one from looking away, from forgetting about the problem. I think it is good for all of us to be confronted with beggars, to ask ourselves what we can do as individuals and as society, and to mingle and look eye-to-eye with people who have fallen through the cracks, who have not “made it”. That IS what Jesus did.