It takes about 10 minutes to walk from our apartment on Connecticut Ave past all the neighborhood retail stores near us. This afternoon the wind was howling at 25-30 miles per hour, ushering in a cold front that will bring temperatures down to the teens followed by what is now described as a major snow event on Sunday. The wind chill must have been in the low 30s.
I passed by eight panhandlers, squatting on the sidewalk, spread out among the various stores,—seven men and one woman, all shivering, all African Americans. Hands extended, holding paper cups, they all looked up at me as I passed by, saying the same thing, “Could you help, got any change? Please, please, mister.”
I passed by every one of them and did not look them in the eye or reach for my wallet. To make matters even worse, I had just stopped by the liquor store and was carrying in a bag a bottle of scotch.
Panhandling is not unusual in Washington. When I used to walk to work downtown, I occasionally would count the number of people I would pass who were begging, which usually was in the double digits, occasionally in the twenties. Passing by and not making eye contact is nothing new for me, but for some reason, this time it got to me. Maybe it was the bitter cold or the fact that on this day there were so many in our neighborhood. Sometimes I have given them money, most of the time I haven’t.
As I passed the last panhandler, I had the image of me standing in front of a bearded Saint Peter at the Pearly Gate, asking me, “Ok, Mr. Howell, what did you do on that windy, cold day in Washington, when you passed eight desperate people pleading for a little change?”
So what are we bleeding hearts supposed to do anyway? How can we pass by a desperate stranger and turn a cold shoulder? But we do. I do it all the time. But to fork out money every time is crazy. That is all I would be doing, giving out money every day. Nobody does that.
“But, Saint Peter, you have got to understand,” I envisioned my reply. “There are so many of these people. Sure, I could afford a dollar here and a dollar there, but it all seems so hopeless. And besides I do all kind of volunteer work in affordable housing and supporting nonprofit organizations that help the poor. Embry and I have given a lot of money to all kinds of charities. I have tried in my own way to support structural change in our society to level the playing field. We are even church goers. Hey, I am a loyal Democrat, does that count? How much more is expected of me?”
“Just do what Jesus would have done,” he replied.
Doomed, I concluded.
Surely, Jesus would have helped every one of these poor people. But, I wondered, what would helping them mean? Just giving a quarter here and a dollar there is certainly not the answer. I could hear myself shouting at the Old Guy, “What is wrong with this world? Why is there so much poverty in a land where there is so much wealth? Why do we humans treat each other so badly? Why is there hate and greed? Why is there racism? Isn’t this the human condition? Isn’t this the world we live in? And whose fault is that? Who created this mess in the first place?”
“Enough from you, Mr. Howell. I told you once and I will say it again: Do what Jesus would have done.”
And so we humans stumble through life doing, in our view, the best we can, realizing that it is not enough, not nearly enough. But that does not mean we should stop trying. And who knows, when the Old Guy at the Pearly Gate looks at the ledger, maybe the pluses will outweigh the minuses, as we have tried feebly to make our way in this glorious but troubled world.